A Traffic Jam you want to be in
His career reads like a history of rock 'n' roll, but through it all, Dave Mason has remained something of an enigma. He is a Brit by birth with no discernible accent who has drifted in and out of some of the greatest bands in the world. He and Steve Winwood were founding members of the seminal band Traffic, which he quit at least three times. He was part of Fleetwood Mac in the '90s, and he recorded duets with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder to name two. But Mason is and has been entirely himself, a lone wolf with fiendish guitar skills.
Those skills will be on display when he brings his “Traffic Jam” tour to town to rock several island halls this week. Mason spoke with Summit by phone from his Nevada home, reminiscing and musing on the current and future state of music.
Mason was already recording by the age of 17, taking to guitar quickly in the midst of a vibrant British music scene.
“I started with guitar because I was in love with the Fender Stratocaster, which is one of the great designs of all time,” Mason recalls. “It will never go out of date. And I was into the new instrumental records, Ventures, Shadows, Duane Eddy, when I was 15 or 16. And it’s sort of like my albums, my musical career. I’m not devoted to one style of music. So learning guitar, I just listened to everything. Classical, jazz, blues, Bulgarian music, Indian music.”
Mason’s eclectic interests manifested in some ground-breaking original music.
“I mean, I listened to it all,” Mason explains. “And yeah, the Indian thing seeped its way in and I was maybe 18 years old. So it’s all part of the discovery. I figured that would be interesting, and then George Harrison gave me my first sitar. And then I featured it on the first song that I wrote, a '60s nursery rhyme called “Hole In My Shoe,” which was Traffic’s first big hit in Europe. And I used it on “Paper Sun,” and then I did use it on a couple of tracks when I was working with Hendrix, and I played bass and sitar on a couple of things. I have no idea what happened to those tracks. They never made it anywhere as far as I know. It was all part of the experimentation, I suppose.”
The names roll out casually, as he reminisces. Mason is surprisingly nonchalant as he discusses legends of the heyday of rock. He invited Hendrix to the party where Jimi heard Dylan’s song “All Along the Watchtower.” Hendrix recorded the tune that night with Mason on a 12-string guitar.
“It’s like anything you do in life,” Mason says. “If you want to learn, then put yourself around the best. And in that era, when I was still in England, it was very easy to cross paths with everybody. There was only a very finite number of studios to use and engineers like Eddie Kramer would be doing the Stones and Hendrix and Traffic, so it came very easy to brush shoulders with them. And then in the “states,” Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson played on my songs, and again, it just happened to be the right place at the right time, really.”
Mason’s “Traffic Jam” tour harkens all the way back to his early days, a concept he pondered for some time before assembling the band and the repertoire.
“It’s something that I was toying with in the back of my mind,” Mason says. “It was just a thought to go back and revisit some of the things from the early Traffic days. I wasn’t sure how it would go over or be received, but I put together this show that is essentially that. The first half I revisit work from the early days, and then we take a break, and then the rest of the show is all Dave. So it becomes a musical travelogue right up until my latest release called Futures Past.”
Mason’s most famous tunes include “Feelin’ Alright,” covered by Joe Cocker, and “We Just Disagree,” which was his biggest chart hit. Mason lived the history of rock and roll, a story now at a difficult place.
“Bottom line is the Internet is destroying intellectual property,” Mason explains. “And the other big part is there’s virtually no radio left any more. And I’m talking on the national level, because the local stations can step outside the box a little. But everybody wants to hang a label on everything, so I’d come under a “classic” artist heading, but the problem is classic rock radio plays nothing new. They just regurgitate the same stuff everybody’s already got at home. And there’s no DJs left any more to say, hey, let’s check out this new tune from Dave Mason! I think that’s why talk radio became so popular, there’s somebody there. You can put talk radio on and sit in the car and yell at the idiot on the radio, ‘What was that comment you just made?’”
Like every musical artist not on the stadium circuit, old avenues have closed and no replacements are in sight.
“But a big part of my income has disappeared, and it’s not just music. It’s the same for writers. Commerce has gone away,” Mason says. “And without good radio, there’s no way for anyone to know I have anything new out.”
For the past couple of decades, artists toured to support CD sales, but the tide has turned, and CD sales have plummeted.
“You’ve got Jay Z going out and saying they sold a million CDs and yeah, well, Samsung bought them,” Mason quips. “Same thing with U2 and Apple giving them that ridiculous amount of money and ramming that album down everybody’s throat. So what’s the point of making anything any more? It costs money to put a CD together.”
Surprisingly, Mason is not without hope. He offers a solution, which is playing live.
“I’m 69 years old, and it’s too late to change jobs at this point,” Mason chuckles. “And I’m as good as I’m ever going to be at this point, and I can do it well, so why not keep doing it? I love playing. I’m just like my band: I’m a working musician.”
Dave Mason stands among the pantheon of guitar gods. His “Traffic Jam” tour promises to be one of the best rock shows of the year. From his classics to his most recent releases, we won’t disagree that Mason is a consummate showman who brings top-notch rock to every stage he graces.