Traffic Jam: Hitting the Road & Making Some Noise!
Dave Mason Discusses His Latest Live Project
DAVE MASON is a true rock and roll success story. At the tender age of 18, the multi-instrumentalist, most known for his guitar work, joined up with keyboardist/vocalist Steve Winwood, drummer Jim Capaldi and multi-instrumentalist Chris Wood to form the band Traffic. The band hit the big time out of the box with the smash hit “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” The band’s future, however, was short lived.
Mason’s time with Traffic was tumultuous and he actually left the band before their first album was released. He returned in time for the self-titled follow-up and played a huge role in that albums success penning “You Can All Join In” and one of the most successful songs of the era “Feelin’ Alright?”
Dave has played with everyone from Michael Jackson to Derek and the Dominoes, to Jimi Hendrix, to the Rolling Stones, to a couple of guys in the Beatles, to a fine lady named Mama Cass. His presence and influence are all over the genre of rock music.
Currently, Mason is on the road playing concerts titled “Traffic Jam” which are a showcase for his work with the band Traffic, including many deep album cuts, as well as songs from his solo career including “We Just Disagree” and “Let It Flow.”
Question: Tell me about Dave Mason’s Traffic Jam. How did this idea come to you and what are your plans?
Dave Mason: I thought about doing something like this about five years ago. In the last year, I just started coming up with the specifics.
After all of these years–it is part of my legacy and part of my history–so I thought it might be fun to go out and do some of these songs from the first two Traffic albums. I just want to go out and play these tunes because nobody is really playing them. I think the legacy of the band is worthy of keeping it alive. There are some cool songs on there that are fun to do and I think there are a lot of people that would love to hear us do that.
Q: Are the concerts strictly going to see you play Traffic or will they get the other aspects of your career, as well?
A: No, I am pacing it so that the first half of the show is revisiting the Traffic songs. After that, the show goes into my songs, some of my classic stuff and two or three new things.
Q: Will you be performing a lot of material the fans have not been able to hear for some time?
A: I think so. There are a couple of things that I’ve included in my own shows for the last two or three years. I have been doing my own version of “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” I am doing “Pearly Queen” and “You Can All Join In.” I am doing “Heaven is in Your Mind,” “Medicated Goo,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Stew,” “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring” and a totally different version of “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” I know that one is not from the era but I think a lot of people will want to hear it.
Q: As an artist, how fun is it to dig this deep back into the catalog?
A: It’s great. I picked songs that are obviously going to be fun to perform. I leave a little bit of room for, as the name of the shows says, a Traffic jam. We road tested this in California with three shows and it went over really well.
Q: I think this format really lends itself to have some of your musician friends onstage to join in and jam with you.
A: Yes, I would like that. I am open to other artists becoming part of this. That would really turn it into a Traffic jam for sure.
Q: Traffic came out of the box hot. You made a huge mark, quickly, you went on to great things and Steve Winwood went on to great things. Traffic didn’t have a long career. I think that is why what you are doing is so important.
A: I think there is some cool stuff. It takes people back. It takes me back too, somewhat. I am dealing with it as a piece of music, mostly. Like I said, we get to perform this stuff on stage and it is fun and everybody in the band has a great time.
Q: Tell me about your band.
A: My band is Alvino Bennett on drums, who has been with me about eight years. Tony Patler is handling keyboards, keyboard bass and also singing some of the Traffic songs. We’ve got a young man who wasn’t even born when this stuff was being done. He’s 33 and his name is Jason Roller and he is an incredibly good guitar player, banjo player, and mandolin and violin player. He is a great addition. It is just the four us putting out a lot of music.
Q: “Pearly Queen,” “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Feelin’ Alright?” are amazing tracks. At the time you created and played these tunes did you think they would stand the test of time like they have?
A: Back then I didn’t think I’d still be doing this at this age. I sort of consciously started, with the second album, to try and write things that were somewhat timeless, the best I could. Obviously, the most timeless one is “Feelin’ Alright?” but the success and the longevity of it, and what spurned so many cover versions, was Joe Cocker. I have to thank him for that. He did a great job with that.
Q: “Feelin’ Alright?” is not the most difficult piece of music that you’ve ever wrote…
A: There are two chords in it. My philosophy is, “Keep it simple, idiot. Don’t complicate this.” So, yeah, I basically tried to keep it simple but somewhat poignant. I suppose what I wrote about resonated with other people. I am blessed. I’ve done what I wanted to do since I was a kid; I’m lucky.
Q: You actually left Traffic before the first album was released.
A: I did. I did it because I was so young…I was 18. I really couldn’t handle the success. It was too much for me. I actually left the band.
It was a huge story in the Sunday newspapers in England, like News of the World. It was a huge second page story that I walked away from it. The fan thing…I wasn’t ready for it. I went off and did some other things and I met back up with them in New York for what became the second Traffic album. They had five songs done and they didn’t have any more material. I dropped by the studio and told them that I had five songs, one of them being “Feelin’ Alright.” I also had “You Can All Join In.” They were like, “Great, we will cut them.” That is how the second album started and then, unfortunately, it just fell into what it fell into. They had a different idea of what Traffic was going to be and what Traffic was supposed to be and I didn’t fit into that and that was that.
Q: In hindsight was some of the problem youth?
A: We were young, for God sakes. I was 18 going on 19 and Steve was 17 years old. Jim was young. We were invincible and we could do anything—except stay together!
Q: You did some things with Mama Cass Elliot. That always seemed like a strange mix to me.
A: That was an odd paring. It came out of the fact that when I first moved to California in 1968 or 1969, Gram Parsons took me up to Cass’s house and there was, at the time, a couple living there that I knew really well from England. It was great because I had people that I knew. I used to spend a lot of time there. From being there and getting to know Cass, who was very bright, smart and witty, we did that album. It was just a crazy time. It was really a crazy summer. That album came out of a friendship, really. It was not a big musical movement or anything. It was an odd pairing.
Q: Did you have more freedom at that time to do whatever you want to do in the music industry back then?
A: You can do whatever you want to do now. I don’t think that really makes any difference. The problem, now, is that there is really no national media outlet to hear new music from artists like me. There is not radio anymore and there are no deejays. What is still there is in communal areas, but there is no national outlet. To release something new, unless you’re specifically looking for it, there is no avenue for me to get heard. They are working it out and figuring it out…the younger artists. They are working the social media and the Internet but, again, there is a whole aspect that is just gone. It just isn’t there anymore. It is what it is.
Q: Do you consider yourself, throughout your career, more lucky or good?
A: [laughter] You know, that is really a hard question to answer because it is a combination of both. A lot of it is just pure persistence and perseverance. My personal life, like everybody’s life, has a lot of great times and lot of hard times. There are a lot of happy times and a lot of sad times. I’m just another working stiff who just happens to make music.
Q: At this stage of the game, you don’t have to hit the road and tour and do Traffic Jam. Why do you continue to live the rock and roll life?
A: What else am I going to do? Why wouldn’t I want to do it? I have a great gig. I don’t understand the concept of retirement and I don’t play golf. I am going to be playing music until I can’t do it anymore. It really is a great gig.
Q: You have a musical voice that touches people. People like to like your music.
A: Thank God they do; it’s great. I can’t believe they have been here all this time. I am as good as I am ever going to be, at this point, at being Dave Mason.
Q: You played on Beggars Banquet by the Stones. You played on “All Along the Watchtower” with Jimi Hendrix and sang background vocals on “Crosstown Traffic.” Do you ever pinch yourself?
A: I am on a few things that were cool and it is really great. It has been fun and it has been a great ride. How I got to be on that stuff is just part happenstance, part just being there and part pushing my way in.
Q: Give me an example of when it was difficult and you had to push ahead…
A: Traffic was just known in America when I came here. When I moved to America in 1968 all I had was a bag and an acoustic guitar. I slept on Gram Parson’s couch for a month. I did whatever I had to do. I was chasing after something and I did what I had to do.
Q: Did you consider any other life other than being a guitar player?
A: No, I didn’t consider anything else at all. From the time I started playing, which was when I was about 15 years of age and was in my first band, The Jaguars, I knew this was it. Just two and a half years later I was writing hit songs with Traffic. Whatever it’s been, I can’t bottle it. It is hard to put down what, how and why because it is a lot of everything. The bottom line is that it boils down to who I am. I am slow but I am persistent [laughter].
Q: Is music spiritual to you?
A: Yes, it is everything to me. It has been my magic carpet ride, you know. Sure, making music is it. I am at an age where I can bitch about this or that and God knows that the traveling at my age isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but to stand and be there with three other guys in the band and to get up on stage… Essentially we use the music for our own purposes. We want it to be fun onstage. We spend 12 hours a day to go somewhere else to play for two hours. You travel all day, every day, going somewhere else. You’ve got to make it fun and it has to be with a great group of guys who get along well with each other. It really is a little organization; it’s a team. If the team is not having fun and gelling off stage, then it ain’t going to be fun on stage. Lord knows, it is a pain in the ass traveling around when you don’t have fun when you’re onstage. My criteria is this: If it is fun for us, then it is going to be fun for the audience.
Q: Let’s talk about some of the famous people you have recorded with. Legend holds that you were for a time in Derek and the Dominos.
A: I was. In the very beginning, I was part of the band. I had been playing with all of those people before Eric ever met them…guys like Jim Gordon. They were all part of Delaney and Bonnie and it was that entire little circle. I’d played with Delaney and Bonnie for a while. They had a huge hit with my song “Only You Know and I Know.”
Q: You knew Jimi Hendrix. How did you meet?
A: I met Jimi in the Speakeasy in London one night. He was just sitting there by himself. I sat down and started talking to him.
Q: Tell me the story of how you got to play acoustic guitar on “All Along the Watchtower.” Eddie Kramer has commented it took you many takes to get the song right. Is that true?
A: We were at somebody’s apartment listening to Bob Dylan’s new album John Wesley Harding which contained the song “All Along the Watchtower.” Jimi really liked it and decided he wanted to do a recording, which we did a few days later. It’s possible it took a few takes. I don’t remember. The timing Jimi had on it was unusual so it took a while to get it.
Q: We have to touch on the Rolling Stones. You were on “Street Fighting Man” on drums?
A: Yes, I was on some of the drums. I was there at the Olympic Studios and hanging out and got to play some drums on the record.
Q: You recorded with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass.
A: George gave me my first sitar. We were friends. I used to go to the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions. George asked me to come play on All Things Must Pass.
Q: You also recorded with Paul McCartney.
A: I knew Paul as well and he was recording in New Orleans and I was playing a concert there. Denny Lane came to the concert and asked me to come to the studio the next day.
Q: In 1977 you hit it big with “Let It Flow.”
A:’ The song just came to me. I love it. It’s fun to play and perform it.
Q: Okay, we have to bring up “We Just Disagree.” I know you didn’t write this one but tell me your thoughts on the lasting impact of this song on your career.
A: It’s a great song with timeless lyrics. My girlfriend says it’s rather Zen-like.
Q: In 1980 you released Old Crest on a New Wave. The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, sang on the album.
A: Michael was recording Off the Wall in the other room at the studio. I needed someone to sing a high harmony on “Save Me”, so when Michael was on a break I asked him if he would sing on the track. To which he responded, “When I was 12 years old, I was doing a TV special with Diana Ross. At the end of the show Diana and I sang “Feelin’ Alright?,” so. Yes, I’d love to sing on your song.” He came to the studio and sang the heck out it.
Q: You are a very charitable man. You don’t go waving the flag for yourself, but you do a lot of good things like Little Kids Rock. (http://www.littlekidsrock.org/)
A: Little Kids Rock asked me to be on their Board and I said yes because they are getting music into the education system. They provide musical instruments for that. Music education is not required like it was when I was in school.
I do not have a lot of active involvement with that organization. I do have a lot of involvement in a charity for military veterans. We are an all-volunteer charity, so there is next to nothing involved in administrative costs. It is called Work Vessels for Veterans (http://www.workvesselsforveterans.org/). What we do is help Vets start their own businesses; that is our mission. They can support themselves and their families and they can get their dignity back. I like to say, “Life is not for the faint of heart.”
Q: Will there be a new Dave Mason album in the future?
A: I am not making long albums anymore. I don’t even care if it is new stuff or old stuff. The music, I think is great so I have a CD that I will have with me on the road. Most of my stuff will be only available on the website at www.davemasonmusic.com. It is called Future’s Past. There is a great version of “Dear Mr. Fantasy” that is kind of a re-write. There is a version of “World in Changes” that is absolutely nothing like the original. There is a great live version that is absolutely beautiful of “Sad and Deep as You.” There are two or three songs that were on a CD called 26 Letters 12 Notes that I did seven years ago that sold very few copies because nobody knew it was out. I’ve put that on there. There is a Robert Johnson song, “Come On in My Kitchen” and there is one brand new song on there called “That’s Freedom.” We are not playing the new song in the show at the moment…the band still needs to learn it.
Q: Last one: With the Traffic Jam shows you said that you’d like people to jam with you. Is there a wish list of people you’d like to join you?
A: Off the top of my head…I have not really thought about a wish list. I am just leaving it open and saying that this is Traffic Jam and if anyone wants to come along, then come on up and jam.
Q: With your background the fans want to see Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton… but it would be really cool to get younger artists like John Mayer or Dave Mathews to sit in for a song.
A: That is what I’m thinking…that there may be people that I am not even familiar with who are fans of Traffic. John Mayer would be great. It would be great to have a younger generation of artists join in and take part in the Traffic Jam.
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