Talking with Traffic Co-Founder, Dave Mason

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He calls Traffic ‘one of the original alternative bands’
Dave Mason/photo by Chris Jensen

Dave Mason/photo by Chris Jensen

Some see Dave Mason as a quintessential ’60s/’70s British classic rocker. Yet he has lived in Southern California since 1969. He speaks with barely a trace of the British accent he was born with in Worcester in 1946. Asked whether he considers himself an American musician or an English one, he is sage, quoting a bumper sticker his late father, a WWI veteran, had on the rear of his car, “I am a citizen of the world.”

Over his years on the planet, Mason was a founding member of Traffic and (briefly) the original second guitarist in Derek & The Dominos. Despite having no musical training, Mason has, throughout his lifetime, been a presence onstage and in the studio with the biggest names in rock. The distinctive switchback 12-string that kicks off Jimi Hendrix’s defining 1968 take of “All Along the Watchtower?” Mason. The droning shenhai at the end of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man?” Mason. The gent singing against Stevie Wonder’s sweet harmonica, in 1973, on “The Lonely One?” Mason.

Now age 70, he began playing guitar at 16, and within a year, like many hopefuls in his immediate postwar generation, was gigging in outfits with brash young names like the Jaguars and the Hellions; learning chord shapes on a cheap guitar while sussing out how to pace a gig or chat up a bird – the rock ‘n’ roll life. He’s still living it, touring extensively last year with Journey and the Doobie Brothers and with solo dates booked through April.

The Hellions tracked a single with producer Kim Fowley (then living in London), and featured a drummer named Jim Capaldi, who, after the group morphed into Deep Feeling, introduced Mason to his pals Chris Wood and Steve Winwood – fresh off of scoring hits like “Keep On Running,” “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man” with the Spencer Davis Group.

traffictraffic19681

Traffic

One thing led to another, and they became a new band that christened itself Traffic.

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What separated Traffic from its contemporaries, at least in part, was its rural Berkshire Cottage sound, a sort of folk psychedelia at odds with the mod pop of Carnaby Street and the bristling R&B of the Marquee. Mason’s songwriting sensibility, equal parts whimsy and melody, was, to Winwood’s dismay, a huge part of the group’s early sound, with the trippy, flute and sitar-laden “Hole In My Shoe” hitting number two on the British charts as the band’s second single.

Fame came early for Mason, and with it the struggles.

“I was 19 years old,” he says. “’Hole in My Shoe’ was the first song I ever wrote. How did I cope with all of that happening so fast, so quick? I quit. It was too much for me. That’s why I left Traffic after the first album.”

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He returned briefly, but by the time the band’s second long player, simply titled Traffic, was in the shops, Mason was already on the bricks again. Bloodied but unbowed, he headed for America.

“The personalities came in after the second album,” he says. “That wasn’t me. That was the others. I have a very pop sensibility, and in the beginning the songs that I was writing became the singles for the band, and that was a rub for the other three. They didn’t want it. That’s why I upped and moved to California.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given the rancor that sometimes surrounds talk of Traffic days, Mason is, once again, sage about how things shook out. He even returned to the band a second time for a handful of gigs in 1971, which led to the release of the loose, raw live disc, Welcome to the Canteen. But any fraternal association ends there.

Still, one of his most recent projects has been the live presentation Dave Mason’s Traffic Jam. A quick tour through Youtube (to Mason’s chagrin) will find the guitarist rocking Winwood/Capaldi/Wood penned Traffic classics like “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Heaven Is In Your Mind” as well as later classics such as “Rock and Roll Stew” and “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” (which he conspicuously did not play on with Winwood and company).

Mason & Jimi Hendrix, 1968

Mason & Jimi Hendrix, 1968

“I’ve been wanting to do Traffic Jam for years, and I finally put it together in 2013,” Mason says. “I just wanted to revisit some of that stuff. Looking back, I would classify Traffic as one of the original alternative bands. These so called jam bands are very popular these days, but we were doing that back then. The way things turned out is that pretty much all the Traffic songs I picked out to do in the show are not my songs. But they’re fun to play and they’re part of that era.”

“Obviously, I do “Feelin’ Alright,” and sometimes I’ll throw in “You Can All Join In,” but I wouldn’t even attempt to do my early Traffic stuff,” Mason continues, echoing Winwood’s opinion from those days. “Frankly, they were my first attempts at writing, and to me, at this time, they’re trite and banal and I don’t want to play them again.”

Those same videos reveal that Mason still has all six strings under his fingers and under his command. That agility is part of what’s kept him sane and solvent through the ups and downs of his epic 50-year career.

As noted, immediately following Traffic’s tossing, Mason moved to Los Angeles, where he took on the lead guitar slot with Delaney & Bonnie, the soulful southern-tinged duo that would hold sway over fellow gunslinger Eric Clapton, as well. Mason got there first, and the married Bramletts, whose first tour with Mason was as opening act for Winwood and Clapton’s Blind Faith, would soon take his “Only You Know And I Know” to the charts in the States.

When Clapton, during sessions for George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, stole the group’s rhythm section for Derek and the Dominos, he initially pulled Mason – back in England for the second brief Traffic reunion – in, too.

Being the first second guitarist of the Dominos – breaking in, with a studio date and one live gig, the shoes that Duane Allman would fill – would alone guarantee Mason his place in the ephemera of rock’n’roll, but that’s just a start.

Post D&B, in 1970, Mason teamed with Mamas and the Papas vocalist Cass Elliott as a duo, releasing an obscure eponymous album the following year. It’s a hidden gem, and one that only his deepest fans dig into.

What of his dalliance with Wooden Frog, essentially an ill-fated Winwood-less Traffic; or his work with proggish British rockers Family; or his membership, in the 90s, in Fleetwood Mac (with his old friends’ daughter, Bekka Bramlett) holding down a guitar/vocal chair vacated by the likes of Peter Green, Bob Welch, Lindsey Buckingham and Billy Burnette? Harrison, the Stones, Paul McCartney, Stephen Stills, Phoebe Snow… Mason’s Zelig-like list of associations rolls on and on.

“They’re all highlights. I was young. I was 22 years old [when I started doing sessions and solo work], and what the hell do you know when you’re 22? There was no manual. I was just out there following my dream. It just happened that I was in a lot of places where things worked out for me. The enormous amount of talent that I’ve had the opportunity to sing with and play with is awesome. I’m very fortunate to have landed in those situations.”

His memory of working with Michael Jackson, on “Save Me” from 1980’s Old Crest on a New Wave, is particularly charming.

“I was cutting Old Crest, the last album I made for Columbia, at Westlake in L.A. Michael was in the other room (Studio A) doing Thriller. I needed somebody to sing a high part on a song I was recording called “Save Me.” Somebody told me they were on a break, so I just walked over there to the doorway of the control room and I explained what I was doing. He looked at me for a minute and he said, ‘I was 12 years old and I did this Diana Ross session, and the last thing she and I did together was a song called “Feelin’ Alright,” so yeah, absolutely, I’ll come over and sing with you.”

dave with dave_0

Mason now and then

What’s easy to overlook while parsing Mason’s star-studded resume is just how solid his solo work has been since the release of the Tommy LiPuma-produced Alone Together in 1970 (and, yes, he confirms he’s still signing the original barf-colored marbled vinyl copies).

That album contained FM radio hits “World in Changes” and “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave,” as well as Mason’s own take on “Only You Know And I Know,” and truly established his mellow yet still edgy sound.

“Feelin’ Alright,” first recorded by Traffic and allegedly inspired by the band’s issues, remains a jam band staple to this day, and has been covered by everyone from Grand Funk Railroad and Mongo Santamaria to, most famously of course, Joe Cocker, whose sandpaper voice found every shred of emotion in the song.

Mason cracked the album charts a number of times on his own and became a solid concert draw, but despite brilliant selections like “Misty Morning Stranger” and “Sad and Deep As You,” he never achieved the wider solo stardom the quality of his early catalog would have suggested.

He also grappled with labels, legally. Blue Thumb, which launched Alone, was disgruntled with Mason’s desire to move to another imprint and released two subpar discs in retaliation, the half live/half studio Headkeeper (which Mason asked fans not to buy) and the in-concert placeholder Dave Mason is Alive. The title track of the former (also appearing on his 1973 Columbia debut It’s Like You Never Left) is one of Mason’s shining moments, but the albums did little to help his career.

Columbia was a better place to be, and Mason released a string of strong titles, even if they didn’t quite ring with the fervor of Alone Together.

Then, in 1977, came “We Just Disagree,” culled from Let It Flow, produced by hard rock maven Ron Nevison.

The song, written by Mason’s longtime friend and guitar foil Jim Krueger, is indelible. Released amidst MOR dross like “Looks Like We Made It” and “You Light Up My Life,” it somehow retained just enough real bite to cut through. It still sounds fresh today, despite its dated production. Like “Watchtower,” it kicks off with a distinctively strummed 12-string (played in the studio version by Krueger), but it’s Mason’s voice, all salt and honey, that sticks in the memory.

“Frankly,” he laughs, spinning a well-burnished line, “I thought it was too good a song to be a hit.”

Krueger’s death, at 43, from pancreatitis, in 1993, was a blow musically more than personally.

“Jim and I played together for 18 years, but we never hung out together. We never really had any social interaction. We just worked so well musically. He was an awesome guitar player and it’s too bad that he went so early.”

Similarly, queried about the importance of the ubiquitous 12-string in his music, Mason doesn’t elaborate or wax poetic.

“It’s like having a piano in your hands. It’s just a fuller version of a six-string.”

While “Disagree” only rose to #12 on Billboard’s Hot 100 (Billy Dean took it to #9 on the country charts in ‘94), it still provided the kind of exposure that has kept Mason aloft as a live act ever since. And he’s just fine with that.

“Live is where it’s at. There’s so much fake stuff going on. There’s so much bullshit out there. The only thing that lasts is anything that’s real, and the only thing that transcends genre is authenticity. The rest is all just a smokescreen.”

For Mason, playing live remains "where it's at."

For Mason, playing live remains “where it’s at.”

He’s not quite so fine with the way audience interaction has changed in the digital age. Instead of lighters held aloft for an encore (a trope sometimes attributed to Fowley), he often faces a sea of cellphones, capturing unauthorized images and audio.

“The Internet has destroyed intellectual property,” Mason fumes. “It’s destroyed people’s livelihoods. It’s all been turned into zeroes and ones and people are just taking it. It bothers me when people sit there with their damn phones, capturing video footage of what I’m doing in front of them. Sit there and enjoy the show; don’t just keep capturing what we’re doing.”

He has been known to respond directly to fans at shows, and not always in the kindest words.

“There’s a finite, very small percentage of musicians moving in that very rarefied stratosphere of making millions of dollars every year,” he explains. “Then there’s the 98 percent of us who are literally working musicians. I am still in that category, and certainly the people who play with me are. This is our livelihood. It’s the way we make our living. You’re not paying me to stand up here and make music, because I would do that anyway. What you’re paying me for is to leave the house, especially at my age.”

Now 70, Mason – whose recorded output has leaned on live albums and compilations since 1987’s Some Assembly Required – shows no sign of slowing down when it comes to leaving the house, or to being a road dog. After wrapping up a long stretch of Traffic Jam dates in February, Mason was excited to be heading out last summer with Journey and The Doobie Brothers.

“Playing live is always great,” he says. “I’ll be doing it ‘til I drop. Don’t miss the last show!”

Dave Mason gives back. He is a strong supporter of veterans causes and music education, with a special section on his website) devoted to such endeavors.

“I support musical education in schools. I think it should be mandatory and it never should have been dropped. But my big thrust is really for the vets. I just started a new 501c3 called Rock our Vets. We’re just up and running and hoping people will want to help. I’m very supportive of helping vets and I think it’s morally offensive what happens to them when they come back from abroad. None of these charities – Rock Our Vets, Wounded Warrior Project, what have you – would have to exist if this country took better care of its vets when they came home.”

Michael Eck

Michael Eck

As a high school junior at a Catholic military academy, Michael Eck was required to complete career profiles for two jobs. He chose freelance writer and musician, and, despite their sad economic profiles, has followed those twin paths ever since. At the Times Union in Albany, NY, Eck was a stringer covering pop music and theater for 27 years. He has also written about music for Amazon.com, AOL/Time Warner, the Austin Chronicle, Billboard, Fretboard Journal, Mandolin Café, Nippertown, No Depression and many other print and web outlets. He has four solo albums of original material and, as a multi-instrumentalist, currently performs with Ramblin Jug Stompers and Lost Radio Rounders. With WAMC Northeast Public Radio, Eck served as the producer and host of the popular live concert/interview program Performance Place. Since 2013, Eck – who also paints portraits of iconic folk, blues and jazz musicians – has been publicist for Proctors in Schenectady, NY.
Michael Eck
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  1. John
    #1 John 14 February, 2016, 14:56

    Thanks Dave Mason for your wonderful music. I grew up listening to my older brother play the Headkeeper album. I haven’t stopped listening!
    Thanks again!

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  2. Fig
    #2 Fig 28 December, 2016, 14:51

    I was googling Dave Mason, The barf album, and I ended up here. I was telling my wife and daughter that I used to have an album that looked like somebody had barfed on it. Then I started singing “world in changes”. I love that album. I used to go see Dave when I would see that he was in concert. His show was always the best. Probably still is.

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  3. Rachael
    #3 Rachael 22 February, 2017, 16:05

    I saw Dave in Atlanta. He still rocks it very well. I love how genuine he is. My admiration and respect for his talent is great. I can only imagine the experiences he has had with such amazing artists. He is a treasure! I would love to sit down with him for a couple of hours and just listen to his stories. What an amazing man!

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