Before Dave Mason enjoyed success as a solo artist in the 1970s and 80s, he made his mark on musical history while securing a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as co-founder of Traffic along with Jim Capaldi, Steve Winwood and Chris Wood in 1967.
Through mid-May, the artist is hitting the road, shelving some of his own solo material in favor of highlighting his short-lived career with Winwood, Capaldi and Wood on what Mason is calling his Traffic Jam Tour. He will be making a stop at The Ridgefield Playhouse January 9, and will bounce back to Connecticut for a set at Norfolk’s Infinity Hall January 16.
Renowned for such Traffic hits as “Feelin’ Alright” (covered by Joe Cocker) and the band’s first and biggest hit, “Hole In My Shoe,” plus his signature solo tracks “We Just Disagree” and “Only You Know and I Know,” Mason said in an advance that he is shining the light on a deeper catalog of Traffic material because he feels “it is important to keep alive the legacy of four young men from the heartland of England and their contribution to contemporary music.”
Traffic Jam concerts will feature hits and deep album cuts from 1967’s Mr Fantasy and 1968’s Traffic, and additional Traffic jams, along with classic Mason hits and even some new material.
Mason recently told The Newtown Bee he is releasing a new EP titled Futures Past, featuring new versions of several classic songs plus new material that he has written and performed on tour over the last few years. The EP will be available through Mason’s website and at his live shows on the 2014 tour.
In a recent interview from his California home, Mason talked about reimagining his music for Futures Past, reminisced about his days kicking around London with a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix, and of course about his experiences as the 18-year-old co-founder of Traffic.
Newtown Bee: When you and Jim Capaldi met up with Winwood and Wood, you were already seasoned performers in local bands like The Hellions and The Deep Feeling. Did that make it easier to get Traffic writing together and out on the road performing?
Dave Mason: Neither of us were really trained, and neither of us read or wrote much music, although the Hellions did a record — a cover of a Jackie Del Shannon song. And we were both big Spencer Davis fans, which is how we got to know Chris and Steve. We hung around together for almost a year before we even started talking about putting Traffic together.
Bee: It didn’t seem to take long for Capaldi and Winwood to gravitate together and started writing the material that became the basis for Traffic’s debut project.
Mason: What you need to remember is, Steve is not a lyricist — he was a boy genius who played with Spencer Davis when he was 15. So the lyrics on songs like “Dear Mister Fantasy” and “Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys” were all Jim’s. From a songwriting perspective they just fell into collaborating together. The only Traffic song I collaborated on with Jim was “Vagabond Virgin,” and later on “Look at You, Look at Me.” And that was just because I had some music and he had some lyrics to put together.”
Bee: So I’m not sure a lot of casual Traffic fans know you actually quit the band twice.
Mason: It became a big problem when Jim and Steve had their ideas about what they wanted to do, and I was writing different types of music. Maybe it was because I had more of a pop sensibility. We were always diverse enough to make it interesting, but I think it was also that diversity that eventually pulled the band apart.
Bee: What Traffic material will you be performing on your Traffic Jam Tour, beyond the hits you’ve been playing regularly since departing the band?
Mason: I’ll be playing “You Can All Join In” and “Feelin’ Alright,” as well as a number of tunes I did not collaborate on, including a re-worked version of “Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys,” which sounds nothing like the original. It’s hard to believe “Feelin’ Alright” has lasted so long — it’s almost 50 years since I wrote it. And thanks to Joe Cocker, it’s become a classic. You know the way I wrote the song was completely the opposite of the way Cocker presented it. I wrote “Feelin Alright” with a question mark. The actual song was about not feeling too good myself.
Bee: Obviously you’re under the impression it’s time to roll out an extended program of Traffic material. What is it about those songs that withstand the tests of time?
Mason: You know, I don’t look at music as being old songs, they are either good songs or they’re not. I’ve always tried to write timeless songs. With my new CD Futures Past, I put nine great cuts on there. But I call it Futures Past because there are classic songs like “World In Changes” that is absolutely nothing like the original, but it is very cool. And there’s a beautiful version that beats the original recording head and shoulders of “Sad And Deep As You.” There’s a Robert Johnson song, “Come On In My Kitchen.” I took three things off the 26 Letters and 12 Notes CD I did about seven years ago, because other than about 10,000 people, nobody has ever heard those songs — which is apparent at the shows. So I redid them because these are great songs. There is also one brand new song on there called “That’s Freedom.”
Bee: You are one of those classic musicians who to some degree helped expose audiences to world influences. I understand you were one of the pioneering rock artists who started playing the Sitar back in the ‘60s.
Mason: In the early days of Traffic I was playing it a lot. I used it on “Hole in My Shoe,” and on “Paper Sun.” The instrument was just starting to be incorporated into more music of the day, and I was just exploring all kinds of musical things. George Harrison gave me my first sitar and I just started using it. I wasn’t purely a guitar player. I’m not a blues artist, I’m not a pop artist, I’m not a ballad guy, I’m not a rock & roll guy, I’m not a jazz guy, I’m all of that ... and I incorporate it all into my music, so there’s no set tag you can put on me musically.
Bee: So you are genre defying?
Mason: I’m not genre defined, that’s for sure. First of all I need a song. As the saying goes: “It’s the song, the song, the song.” So each song requires a different approach musically, and that is how I deal with things. Sometimes it’s been somewhat of a problem — overall I think it’s been an asset not being genre defined. I’m not looking to put labels on things, I either like something or I don’t.
Bee: You and Winwood both got tapped to reminisce about Jimi Hendrix in the new documentary, Hear My Train A Comin’. What are some of your memories of those early days banging around with Jimi?
Mason: Well I haven’t seen the film yet, although I know it’s been on PBS. I know they wanted my take on Jimi because I was closely involved with him for awhile. The first time I saw him, he was getting brought around London and his manager was basically having him sit in with people in different little and semi-private club gigs. That’s where I first saw him. And this guy gets up on stage, and he starts playing, and I said to myself, damn it, maybe I should find myself another instrument to play. The man was an innovator. There was only one Hendrix, and there will only be one Hendrix. He’s influenced everybody — Robin Trower, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Hendrix playing with Mason and Wood in a Royal Albert Hall concert circa 1969.
Bee: Hendrix was so much more than a just another flashy blues musician.
Mason: You know he had all that blues stuff down, and he was far beyond that. The things he did in the studio were highly innovative - I spent a good deal of time in a lot of his sessions and I would just sit there and say wow. Back then in studio, we were all analog. There were only four tracks to work on. In those days you had to figure out what you were trying to create before you put it down on the recording. I was lucky enough to get to know him and spend time with him. He was a quiet guy, but a hard worker in the studio. Jimi was quite different from the stage persona he created, which he actually tried at one point to tear down, it was like hanging out with Walter Mitty.