Sunday, April 29, 2012

On The Road - Traffic

On The Road
Island ISLA 2

I've mentioned in the past how I spent the 1970s wishing it was still the 1960s.  Until the New Wave started, I paid little attention to the contemporary music scene and I had little interest in hearing about the musical tastes of my peers.  They could have their precious Frampton and the Eagles, I had the Beatles and the Byrds.  Occasionally stuff would filter through though.  I was a freshman sitting in Spanish class in high school when I heard a sophomore mention that his favorite group was Traffic.  My ears perked up.  I had yet to hear the band but I knew from my rock encyclopedias that they were a group from the 1960s.  This sophomore was smart so I respected his judgment more than most of the dunces at my school and I made a mental note of his favorite Traffic album which was a live double called "On The Road" that was recorded on the band's German tour in 1973.  He rhapsodized about the extended cuts and the superlative playing on the record.  I didn't rush out and buy it, I wasn't that easily swayed, but I kept my eyes open and when I came across a used copy a few years later I did buy it.  I was hugely disappointed.  I expected rock and roll jams, but this sounded like jazz.  I came close to getting rid of it.  Later I bought the earlier Traffic albums, in particular, "Mr. Fantasy" and became a modest fan of the group's early work.  I warmed up a little toward this album which bears little resemblance to the more psychedelic and folk-rock sound they had in the 1960s mostly because I started to like jazz.  Nonetheless it hasn't spent much time on my turntable even though I've had it for over 30 years.  Instrumentally the album is very strong.  Aside from the core group of Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood the group is supplemented by a formidable rhythm section of Roger Hawkins on drums, Reebop Kwaku Baah on percussion and David Hood on bass as well as Barry Beckett on keyboards.  These guys really cook when they get going, the problem is that don't get going that often.  There are only seven songs spread over four sides of vinyl, so there are some lengthy workouts but most of the jamming doesn't go anywhere.  The album opens with a nearly 16 minute long performance of Winwood's "Glad" that segues seamlessly into the Winwood/Capaldi song "Freedom Rider" both songs coming from "John Barleycorn Must Die."  "Glad" is an instrumental that begins with a fast paced section that I find exciting before slowing into a more subdued, melodic passage that I think is boring.  The uptempo portion of the song features some dynamic interplay between Winwood and Beckett's keyboards and demonstrates the propulsive power of the percussion section of the group, however Chris Wood's sax solos seem largely pedestrian to me.  With its percussive energy it reminds me a bit of Santana in their jazz-rock phase.  "Freedom Rider" is shorter and punchier and it features Winwood singing instead of just jamming which I prefer.  I even dig Wood's flute solo.  This is my favorite cut on the record (and not just because it is the shortest, although that helps.)  Side two features a pair of songs from "Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory".  Chris Wood's "Tragic Magic" is a meandering and monotonous instrumental that doesn't do anything for me and a ten minute version of the Winwood/Capaldi "(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired" just serves to remind me of how appropriate that title is for the song.  The song is partially redeemed by a searing Winwood guitar solo, but for the most part it is sheer tedium.  Side three is better with more rocking out.  The title track from "Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory" benefits from the percussive punch offered by the guest players.  It starts out rocking and I like Winwood's soulful vocal.  The inevitable ensuing jam is energetic although it goes on too long.  Capaldi's "Light Up or Leave Me Alone" (off "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys") features a vocal from Capaldi who isn't much of a singer but is adequate for the task.  At more than 10 minutes long, the song is twice as long as the studio version but some of that time is devoted to introducing the band.  The song is the hardest rocking song on the album and there is a greater emphasis on Winwood's guitar solos than on Wood's reed work which definitely meets with my approval.  Unfortunately the record takes a turn for the worse with side four and a seventeen minute long version of "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys."  The original song was not all that strong to start with and it doesn't offer much depth for extended soloing but that doesn't keep the band from going off the deep end anyway.  I find all the noodling around to be sleep-inducing although the song does finish with surprising force if you can stay awake that long.  I like this record a lot more than I did when I was a teenager, but I still have limited use for it.  If I want to hear jazz-rock I'd rather listen to Miles Davis or the Mahavishnu Orchestra and if I want to hear jams, I reach for the Grateful Dead or Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac.  Recommended for fans of Weather Report and Return to Forever.


  1. I love '60s Traffic, but not the '70s Traffic as much. "John Barleycorn Must Die" is the last album of theirs that I think is consistently great.

    1. I agree. Even though I don't care much for his solo career, the departure of Dave Mason really hurt this band.