With tour dates on the horizon, the legendary Traffic guitarist is ready to get back on the road
Of course, when I talked with Dave Mason, co-founding member of Traffic, I had to first ask him: “Forgive me, but are you feelin’ alright?”
Mason, to his credit, laughed slightly and said yes, with me pushing the faux idiotic interview guise a bit further by positing he’d not ever heard that question before.
“Never,” he said, lying appropriately, but acknowledging that hey, you write a song like that – and it becomes a hit –- you know at some point it’s going to come back and bit you but hopefully in a good way.
Mason: “Oh yeah.”
“Feelin’ Alright,” as it turns out, was the last song he played on stage with his band Traffic Jam before the COVID shutdown. That was March 10 at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, NY.
VIDEO: Dave Mason “Feelin’ Alright”
Mason celebrates his 75th birthday on May 10. Our chat was seven years ago, ten years after Traffic was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was not overly impressed by the accolade.
“Ego-wise, it doesn’t really mean a damn thing,” Mason told me. “It was nice they recognized Traffic. It’s sort of like the Academy Awards, the industry patting itself on the back. Does it really change anything for me? I don’t think so. It’s nice to say I got a statue. But I never got into it for this. I started making music because it looked like a lot of fun and I could make a living at it.”
VIDEO: Traffic performs at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame 2004
Making a living … yes … the old hard way, to borrow a line from Tommy James’ “Draggin’ the Line.” All that had changed in the streaming/Internet era; something that once had value – recorded music, catalogs – seemed to not have that any longer. It was the proverbial rug being pulled out from under you. Yes, Mason averred, he still loved the music and enjoyed working with guitarist/mandolinist Jason Roller, keyboardist Tony Patler and drummer Alvino Bennett.
“We’re really good, man,” Mason said. “Straight-up music, good songs. And I impart a few little stories they might like to hear.” But Mason, like a lot of veteran musicians, was on the road, where there was at least something to be made.
“I’ve been told I shouldn’t be negative about all this,” he said. “The Internet is a great tool, but unfortunately the internet is destroying all intellectual property. And the problem is people will spend five bucks on a café latte frappe mocha but they won’t spend a buck on a song. And that’s our living, copyrights. I’m not just talking just for me; I’m talking for all of us [musicians]. It is what would be our retirement or what we pass on to our kids. That has been destroyed. People refuse to pay for music, and they don’t understand it takes time and money to make this stuff. It doesn’t just magically appear. It’s not only for musicians and songwriters, but writers. Somehow, it’s sort of embedded and gotten into people’s psyche that it’s OK to do this – just grab it and take it. To me, it’s huge and it’s a shame.
“Not only that, everybody would be down on the record labels – they’re bastards, they’re robbing us – but frankly the old record labels are making this look [good]. Look at something like [the streaming service] Pandora. You’ve got this company making huge amounts of money through a public stock offering, for instance, [the band] Orleans, the main guy [Larry Hoppen] committed suicide [in 2012]. The thing is they get a million plays on Pandora with one of their songs and they got a check for $118.”
As to streaming and the paucity of royalties, Mason said, “The genie is out of the box and I don’t know how you legislate or make that work at all. Thank God I can still get up and play because that’s the part of it that’s left untouched.”
Let’s go back into Traffic for a moment. While Traffic – singer-guitarist Mason, singer-keyboardist Steve Winwood, singer-drummer Jim Capaldi and saxophonist Chris Wood – made its mark in the late- ‘60s, it came to greater fame and acclaim after the departure of Mason, who was there for just the first two albums. But Mason scored pretty quickly, too, with his solo debut, Alone Together, which went gold, and four more gold albums to follow. The apex was the platinum-plus Let It Flow in 1977. That featured the hit “We Just Disagree.” Mason’s catchy blues-rock sound fit in perfectly with the FM rock radio style of the day. And “Feelin’ Alright,” originally done with Traffic, was turned into a hit by Joe Cocker and also covered by the Jackson 5, Three Dog Night and Grand Funk Railroad, among others.
With Traffic Jam in 2014 – and a check of early 2020 set lists confirmed they were still at it – Mason was mixing both Traffic and solo material.
“I just thought it might be fun to just go and revisit some of that stuff,” he said, of setlist choices. “There’s nobody out there playing it per se. I know Steve is still touring, but I don’t know exactly what it is he includes or doesn’t include in his shows. But for myself, I wanted to revisit the time that I was there and include it in a show where I take mostly stuff from the first two albums. Though I do include a version of “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” [written after he left the band, in 1971, by Winwood and Capaldi] that sounds nothing like the way it was written.
VIDEO: Traffic Jam performs “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys”
But was there anything odd or ironic about playing Traffic songs written by Steve and/or Jim after Mason had left?
“It feels fine,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me one way or other. It’s part of what I was with, and most of the tunes I do were written by Jim Capaldi. Jim and I, we had bands when we were kids, long before Traffic started. So, I have a legacy there whether they’re my songs or not.”
The mix of solo songs and Traffic songs worked fine for him
“One thing flows into the other,” he said. “Basically, if things hadn’t gone the way they did, songs that were on Alone Together would have been on the next Traffic album.”
So, let’s talk about the exit from Traffic. “As far as the other three were concerned, my music didn’t fit with what they wanted to do,” Masons said. “And that’s it.’”
How did it not fit?
“I’m not exactly sure.”
Was there animosity between you and them?
“They just didn’t care for what I was doing.”
Did you leave voluntarily or were you booted?
“My stuff didn’t fit into that program.”
You made the choice to leave?
“It was just not going to work staying there.”
Of course, nothing lasts forever and Traffic didn’t; the band was done by 1974 for all intents and purposes. But I wondered if Mason had any fear leaving the comfort zone of Traffic, that people might know the band but not know who Dave Mason is.
“I had no idea. I was 22-years-old and I had no real idea what was going to happen. I eventually made the decision to pack a bag and a guitar and get on a plane and go 7000 miles to Los Angeles. And I’ve lived here ever since. Traffic was just getting known. It wasn’t really a big band over here [in America], so I just came to a fresh set of circumstances without really having any idea what the hell was going to happen.”
Mason seized the sense of freedom at that age. He’d had some success, he wanted to open more doors. He had confidence. “Certainly, that was my [attitude],” he said. “Whether it played out or not was a whole other story, but fortunately for me I came here and I made that first solo album, Alone Together. That was very successful and became a seminal album for a long time. I thought, personally, it was a good start.
And then a string of gold albums …
“Platinum and gold.”
So, what did that feel like, reaching the upper levels of stardom? Did life change at that point?
“Life is constantly changing,” he said. “The old adage – ‘It’s too bad that youth is wasted on the young’ – it applies to all of us, no matter what we do. I was lucky; I had reasonably good success and my songs. I had a couple that would become seminal songs in contemporary music, mostly “Feelin’ Alright” and “Only You Know and I Know” [a hit for Delaney & Bonnie]. There are still a lot of people who aren’t aware I wrote those. I’ve had those songs that were a success for me but a bigger success for other people.
Some people might hear him do “All Along the Watchtower” and may not even know it’s a Bob Dylan song. They may think it’s yours, as you’ve been doing it so long.
“No,” Mason says with a laugh. “They think it’s a [Jimi] Hendrix song. It still resonates [with me] now, not because Dylan wrote it, but because I was on the recording with Hendrix [playing rhythm guitar]. And we both heard the song at the same time.”
Which leads into the collaborative/session work end of it. Mason played with a lot of greats – Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, George Harrison, the Rolling Stones and loads more.
AUDIO: Dave Mason feat. Michael Jackson “Save Me” (1980)
“I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. “Michael Jackson singing on a track happened because he was recording Thriller in another [adjacent] studio and he was on a break. I had a song I needed somebody to sing a high part on. I thought, ‘Well, Michael can sing high, I’ll go ask him.’ He said, ‘You know, when I was 12-years-old I did this Diana Ross special and at the end of the show we did this song called “Feelin’ Alright” so, yeah, absolutely I’ll do this.’ (They collaborated on ‘Save Me’ from Mason’s 1980 LP Old Crest on a New Wave).”
And then there was the Stones’ Beggars Banquet.
“I played on ‘Street Fighting Man,’ mostly because, there again, because everybody finished up in London and there was a very finite number of studios. The studio the Stones were coming in was the same studio we use. They were using the same engineer and we were using the same producer [Jimmy Miller] and I had known [Stones guitarist] Brian Jones. (Mason played a shehnai, a Persian double reed oboe, on the song.) It’s circumstances. They weren’t really planned – other than George [Harrison] asking me if I would play on All Things Must Pass. A lot of it just happened to be right place and the right time.”
Jimmy Miller, who produced the Stones and also the first Traffic album, Mr. Fantasy, did a prodigious amount of drugs and ended up in Boston, dead at 52 from liver failure. Traffic’s Chris Wood also got on the drug train, had liver disease and died of pneumonia in 1983 at 39. Did Mason keep those potential demons at bay?
“Oh, I’ve had my share,” he said. “But it stopped serving me anymore. I t’s just like any addiction. You make it through or you don’t. You get to that point where enough’s enough. It’s self-defeating.”
VIDEO: Dave Mason & The Quarantines “Feelin’ Alright”
Mason’s 2020 tour was, of course, scrapped. He did release some music, though, as Dave Mason and the Quarantines, which included the Doobie Brothers, Mick Fleetwood and Sammy Hagar. They tackled “Feelin’ Alright.”
With the pandemic putting most of 2021 concerts into a gray zone, Mason has five tentative US dates booked, starting Aug. 26 at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, NJ.