Posted July/August, 2011
Photo Courtesy of Dave Mason
I suppose that, if I could conjure up an uber cool classic rock and roll resume for myself, it would feature such achievements as working on some of the most history making albums in rock, write some of the most memorable songs in rock and play with some of the most iconic figures in rock.
And, I suppose that if I did such a conjuring of that resume, it would wind up looking much like the life and legacy of legendary rocker, Dave Mason. For instance, Mason was a member of the ground breaking group, Traffic, having worked on their first two studio albums, Mr. Fantasty and Traffic as well as their live album, Welcome to the Canteen. He played acoustic guitar on Jimi Hendrix’s cover of the Bob Dylan tune, All Along the Watchtower on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland album. Though not credited for it, he reportedly worked on the Rolling Stones album, Beggars Banquet. He also worked on George Harrison’s album, All Things Must Pass.
When he wasn’t helping out his rock and roll friends, Mason was very busy cranking out very high quality and notable hits on his own solo albums – songs like Just for You, We Just Disagree and even a duet with Michael Jackson entitled Save Me. In addition to Harrison, Hendrix and Jackson, Mason worked with such rock royalty as Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, Fleetwood Mac and Eric Clapton.
I couldn’t possibly have come up with that kind of dream rock and roll resume in my own feeble mind. That’s what makes Dave Mason’s life and career incredibly intriguing, making me wish that I could trade my resume for his. Since that isn’t ever going to happen without landing me in jail for identity theft, I, like you, am more than content to enjoy Mason’s wonderful legacy that grows with every performance and new tune.
I had the privilege of catching Mr. Mason’s show during a recent stop here in the Dallas area (the review of that show is here). The show was phenomenal and, on my way out of the venue, I picked up a copy of his latest CD, 26 Letters ~ 12 Notes (read the Boomerocity review of it here). While I didn’t get to interview Mr. Mason at that time, the opportunity did afford itself recently to chat about his participation in the Hippiefest 2011.
Hippiefest is an annual event – a touring festival of sorts – where some of our most favorite artists from the 60’s and 70’s join together for a brief tour to reconnect with fans. I had the privilege off attending the 2009 Hippiefest tour and had the honor of interviewing the legendary guitarist for Mountain, Leslie West. The tour is always a load of fun and is guaranteed to bring back a boat load of fond memories for those of us who were back in the day and is sure to introduce younger generations to real rock and roll music and legends.
Hippiefest 2011 begins in August when Dave Mason will join rock luminaries Rick Derringer, Mark Farner (here), Gary Wright (here), and Felix Cavaliere for a musical phenomena that will definitely go down in the history books as one of the best musical values of the year if not for all time.
When Mr. Mason called me from his California offices, we started off by discussing his participation in Hippiefest. I asked him if he had been involved in any other Hippiefests and if he had worked with any of the participating artists before.
“No, I haven’t done any others. I’ve done shows over the years with Mark Farner – both with Grand Funk and solo. Gary Wright – I know Gary from back in my days with Traffic. Gary used to be with Spooky Tooth. I think from purely an audience point of view, it might be one of the better valued ticket price out there this summer.”
Dave has toured the world many times over in his 40+ years in the rock world. With so many miles traveled, I asked him what’s changed about touring. His answer was short and sweet, designed to elicit nervous laughter by the truth of it all.
“Mad bombers and TSA.”
I asked him what he missed about touring during the old days, he replied, “No mad bombers and no TSA.”
The weight of those comments and insights, brief as they were, still weighs heavy on my mind as I contemplate the impact 9/11 has had on the world.
In 2004 Dave Mason, Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi, as the original members of Traffic, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Prior to this interview, I asked the CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a comment on Mason. He had this to say about the rock icon:
“He’s a great guy. He’s one of the most, I think, approachable folks that I’ve worked with here – particularly relative to the inductees but also artist in general. He has a great since of humor and a great spirit of life and playing. He’s also a great friend of the museum. What I think is interesting about Dave is – and I mean this sincerely – he’s one of those artists that, I think, has upped his game over the years in terms of great work with Traffic. A great, significant, individual career. But even now, with this last album – which I gave the last album to all of my board members and they all loved it. It’s an album that is so readily listenable – the quality of his guitar playing and the quality of his singing. He did not stand still. The gods blessed him with talent and something that remains with him at the same level he had when he was younger.”
With that in mind, I asked Mr. Mason two stupid questions: How did that feel and what has that meant to him? His answers were heartfelf.
“Well, obviously, it’s nice to be recognized for the work that Traffic did. I was basically only there for the first two albums. I wrote half of the first two albums and there was that Welcome to the Canteen (Traffic’s live album released in 1971). There’s been multiple ‘best of’s’ and more ‘best of’s’. It was a great time. I was eighteen but, on the other hand, it was not cool because there was – it’s hard to explain it without being ‘sour grapes’ but Steve (Winwood) just made it very difficult to do it as a unit. It was more his show than it was Traffic’s, frankly. He dictated what was going to be done and what wasn’t going to be done. And the bottom line is they wanted to do Dear Mr. Fantasy. They go, “Well, we want to do Dear Mr. Fantasty and we want to do it just like we did it when we were eighteen” and I’m, like, “Excuse me? That was a long time ago. Why would Traffic even want to do it the same way?’
“See, I classify Traffic as one of the original alternate bands. A lot of stuff we did on stage was jamming. So, to me, it was a question of, ‘Well, let’s just get up there and let’s blaze it out, trade guitar solos and, basically, do the song but give it a fresh approach because it’s open for it.’ They go, ‘No, that’s not going to happen.’ Then I go, ‘Well, I’ll just stand up and play acoustic guitar.’ ‘No, that’s not going to happen. You’ve got to play bass!’
“I played bass on the original version and I played bass on a song called Dealer. I haven’t picked up a bass or played a bass since I was eighteen and I’m 65 now! It was like, ‘Guys, it’s not my instrument. Let’s get up and make this happen.’
“So, that was the problem. It was sort of a bittersweet kind of event, I suppose, for me. Whatever the problem is – and still, to this day, I have no idea; no clue – it was a great opportunity to take that opportunity to actually do one last round with the last three remaining members because it was a year - year and a half later that Jim passed away. So, there were just opportunities missed there and that’s unfortunate. One would think that you would work past those things but evidently not. That’s just the way it is.”
While Mr. Mason was offering reflections on his career, I asked him what, of all the questions and interest in his work, what would be the one thing that he feels has been least covered and understood about his work?
With a laugh, Mason responds. “Oh, gosh! I don’t know. I think, personally, more from a music business standpoint, I’m just sort of hidden under the radar. I’m as good as I’m ever going to be at this point – of being ‘Dave Mason’. The singing is still strong. The playing is still there. I’ve always tried to keep my music somewhat timeless and I think that works in a lot of songs. To me it’s either good music or it’s bad music. I listen to all kinds of music. Either I relate to it or I don’t. You know, like everybody, it’s subjective.
“It’s like, Terry Stewart, ‘When are you guys going to book me up for an induction?’” Mason rhetorically asks with a laugh. “It’s not like I haven’t done quite a bit in this career of mine and influenced a lot of people and made a great classic album. So, it would seem that he would put me up there for something. But, otherwise, I can’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, wasting my time with that. We go on. Obviously, I haven’t played the huge venues that I used to play back in the 70’s but it doesn’t matter. What we do do we pretty much sell out. It’s still a great audience there and we have a great time playing.”
What hasn’t Mason done, musically that he still wants to accomplish?
“Music for a movie. It doesn’t matter what kind of movie. With the way I write, it would probably be for some sort of human interest story.”
As I mentioned at the beginning of this interview, I picked up Mason’s latest album, 26 Letters 12 Notes, that came out in 2008. It’s a must-have for connoisseurs of rock and roll in general and Dave Mason and/or Traffic fans in particular. I love the whole album but I think my favorite cut is How Do I Get To Heaven. After telling Mr. Mason my honest, positive opinion of the album, I asked him what crowd reaction has been to any of the songs performed off of it.
“I only do a couple of songs live most of the time – Good 2U and Let Me Go. I did that album over a five or six year period. The problem is radio is the weak link in everything. So there’s no way for anybody to hear anything new. There’s no DJ’s except if you’re in small, little, local markets you’ll find that occasional station but on a national level it doesn’t exist. It’s crazy. When I do listen to it (radio) – which I don’t – you never know who they just played anyway. There’s no back sell – there’s nothing. It’s just wallpaper for selling stuff. It’s the day music died, you know? Satellite helps a little bit but there’s, what, five or six million members? You’re talking about a country of over 300 million people here.
“Back when radio was radio and you had DJ’s, you had songs up there being played, at least you had the opportunity for people to hear it and buy it. That whole thing is nonexistent. The bottom-line is that nobody is really playing anything new by artists like me at all. They just keep regurgitating the same stuff. Even kids that come to my shows and I talk to about it, they go, ‘Well, we don’t even listen to it because it’s boring – there’s nothing going on.’ So, that whole human component thing was taken out of there. Whether it was to reduce their costs, streamline it or whatever – I don’t know. I have to feel that somewhere down the line it will have to come back somewhere.
“But that the reason why I think talk radio has become so big, because there’s somebody there. There’s actually somebody there talking – with an opinion so you can yell at the radio or agree with them, whatever. They’ve taken all of that personal touch – that human touch – out of it (rock radio) and, without that, it’s just wallpaper. But, like I said, I have kids at my shows that get it! They say, ‘Well go to the internet. We’ll look for something else.’ They got it. They go, ‘What’s the second half of the show going to be like?’ and I go, ‘It’s going to be exactly like the first half!”
I asked Mr. Mason a question that I often ask artists of his stature: What’s been the biggest POSITIVE change, in his opinion, in the music industry since the 60’s/70’s?
“Basically, because of everything that’s happened, it’s kind of gone full circle. When I started, you made a single. If you got a hit with a single, then you made an album. It was all very singles driven. For the most part, it’s sort of where it’s gone back to. When I say that I won’t make another CD, I’m not going to make another album like that to go out to the market because there is no market. Basically, that CD might be sold out there in the public about, I don’t know, 12 or 13 thousand albums/CD’s. Most of the stuff I’ll have to sell door-to-door like peddling Encyclopedia Brittanica or Tupperware and doing it at the shows.
“But the only other way for me, at this point, will be interviews like this. Where I’ve got it set up is I’ve revamped my entire website and I have a recording studio at home and I keep recording at home. There are a lot of great, old songs that I want to re-cut and do a different way. And there’s some stuff that’s new but it’s all going to be available at DaveMasonMusic.com. That’s where you can go if you want to download any Dave Mason music. I don’t have a lot of stuff up there right now because it’s only been a couple of months since that thing was done and I’m still tweaking it out a little bit. I’m just going to keep feeding it into my website and, hopefully, people will enjoy it. I mean, for a $1 or $1.50 per download for music – that’s the biggest bang you’re going to get for the cheapest amount of money on pretty much anything you buy. You can play it over and over and over again. And the internet is a wonderful tool but it’s a double edged sword. It’s allowed everybody to steal everything. That’s just an odd situation to me. If you can digitize it, you can steal it.”
As our time was up, I asked Mr. Mason one final question: When he’s stepped off of the tour bus for the final time and Dave Mason has left this building called “Earth”, how do he want to be remembered?
After several seconds of thought, he responds, “Well, my thing with life before me goes along with my philosophy of everything – not that I’ve always succeeded, personally, but I like to leave things in a better place than I found them. That would be my quote.”
I’m of the honest opinion that, at least musically, he has done, and continues to do, exactly that.
You can catch Dave Mason during most of the stops during Hippiefest 2011. As I mentioned before, it’s an incredible opportunity to relive some quality rock and roll memories. You can also keep up with the latest developments in Mr. Mason’s career by visiting www.davemasonmusic.com and, while you’re there, you can sign up for his newsletter and check out his store for any music of his that might be missing in your collection.