“Ego-wise, it doesn’t really mean a damn thing,” Mason says. “It was nice they recognized Traffic. It’s sort of like the Academy Awards, the industry patting itself on the back. Does it really change anything for me? I don’t think so. It’s nice to say I got a statue. But I never got into it for this. I started making music because it looked like a lot of fun and I could make a living at it.”
Making a living.That’s something Mason, 69, will get into later – how that’s all changed in the internet era. But the act of performing, that hasn’t. Mason will be at the Lowell Summer Music Series’ Boarding House Park tonight July 18 with his backing trio, Traffic Jam, guitarist/mandolinist Jason Rolle keyboardist Tony Patler and drummer Alvino Bennett. “We’re really good, man,” Mason says. “Straight-up music, good songs. And I impart a few little stories they might like to hear.”
While Traffic – singer-guitarist Mason, singer-keyboardist Steve Winwood, singer-drummer Jim Capaldi and saxophonist Chris Wood – made its mark in the late-‘60s, it came to greater fame and acclaim after the departure of Mason, who was there for just the first two albums. But Mason scored pretty quickly, too, with his solo debut, “Alone Together,” which went gold, and four more gold albums to follow. The apex was the platinum-plus “Let It Flow” in 1977. That featured the hit “We Just Disagree.” Mason’s catchy blues-rock sound fit in perfectly with the FM rock radio style of the day. “Feelin’ Alright,”cq Mason’s best-known song (originally done with Traffic), was turned into a hit by Joe Cocker and also covered by the Jackson 5, Three Dog Night and Grand Funk Railroad, among others.
Cape Cod Times: Please forgive me, but: You feelin’ alright?
Mason: (laughs slightly) Yes.
You’ve never heard that before, right?
But, hey, you write a song like that – and it becomes a hit – you know at some point it’s going to come back and bite you. But in a good way, I hope.
Tell me what you’re doing in Truro. It’s both Traffic and solo material, right?
I just thought it might be fun to just go and revisit some of that stuff. There’s nobody out there playing it per se. I know Steve is still touring, but I don’t know exactly what it is he includes or doesn’t include in his shows. But for myself, I wanted to revisit the time that I was there and include it in a show where I take mostly stuff from the first two albums. Though I do include a version of “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” [written after he left the band, in 1971, by Winwood and Capaldi] that sounds nothing like the way it was written. I do that in the first part of the show, take a break and then come back and the second half is pretty much stuff from my solo career.
Is there anything odd or ironic about playing Traffic songs written by Steve and/or Jim after you left?
It feels fine. It doesn’t matter to me one way or other. It’s part of what I was with, and most of the tunes I do were written by Jim Capaldi. Jim and I, we had bands when we were kids, long before Traffic started. So, I have a legacy there whether they’re my songs or not.
In your show, is there a good flow between Traffic songs and your solo material?
It works fine – one thing flows into the other. Basically, if things hadn’t gone the way they did, songs that were on “Alone Together” would have been on the next Traffic album.
Sometimes on the outside, we see it as cut and dried – songs done with the band or songs done solo are all for an aesthetic reasons. But I know often times it comes down to personnel and timing. So, why did you exit Traffic?
As far as the other three were concerned, my music didn’t fit with what they wanted to do. And that’s it.
How did it not fit?
I’m not exactly sure.
Was there animosity between you and them?
They just didn’t care for what I was doing.
Did you leave voluntarily or were you booted?
My stuff didn’t fit into that program.
You made the choice to leave?
It was just not going to work staying there.
Of course, the band didn’t last forever and was done by 1974 for all intents and purposes. But did you have fear leaving the comfort zone of Traffic? Any feeling that people would not know who Dave Mason is?
I had no idea. I was 22-years-old and I had no real idea what was going to happen. I eventually made the decision to pack a bag and a guitar and get on a plane and go 7000 miles to Los Angeles. And I’ve lived here ever since. Traffic was just getting known. It wasn’t really a big band over here [in America], so I just came to a fresh set of circumstances without really having any idea what the hell was going to happen.
I think there’s a lot of freedom at that age. You want to open doors. And if you have confidence in what you’ve done and had some success with it …
Certainly that attitude was mine. Whether it played out or not was a whole other story, but fortunately for me I came here and I made that first solo album, “Alone Together.” That was very successful and became a seminal album for a long time. I thought, personally, it was a good start.
You had a string of gold albums …
Platinum and gold.
Right. What did that feel like, reaching the upper levels of stardom? Did life change for you at that point?
Life is constantly changing. The old adage – “It’s too bad that youth is wasted on the young.” It applies to all of us, no matter what we do. I was lucky; I had reasonably good success and my songs. I had a couple that would become seminal songs in contemporary music, mostly “Feelin’ Alright” and “Only You Know and I Know” [a hit for Delaney & Bonnie]. There are still a lot of people who aren’t aware I wrote those. I’ve had those songs that were a success for me but a bigger success for other people.
Some people might hear you do “All Along the Watchtower” and may not even know it’s a Bob Dylan song. They may think it’s yours, as you’ve been doing it so long.
No, they think it’s a [Jimi} Hendrix song.
You do often encore with that. Why?
Well, among other things probably in the 35-40 years I’ve been on the road, I can guarantee that’s been requested at every single show. Mostly, it resonates [with me] now not because Dylan wrote it, but because I was on the recording with Hendrix [playing rhythm guitar]. And we both heard the song at the same time.
You’ve played on a lot of great sessions – with Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones and loads more.
Well, they’re just things that happened. I guess I was in the right place at the right time. Michael Jackson singing on a track happened because he was recording “Thriller” in another [adjacent] studio and he was on a break. I had a song I needed somebody to sing a high part on. I thought, “Well, Michael can sing high, I’ll go ask him.” He said, “You know, when I was 12-years-old I did this Diana Ross special and at the end of the show we did this song called “Feelin’ Alright” so, yeah, absolutely I’ll do this.” (They collaborated on “Save Me” from Mason’s 1980 LP “Old Crest on a New Wave.”)
You played, uncredited, on the Stones’ great album, “Beggars Banquet.”
I played on “Street Fighting Man,” mostly because, there again, because everybody finished up in London and there was a very finite number of studios. The studio the Stones were coming in was the same studio we use. They were using the same engineer and we were using the same producer [Jimmy Miller] and I had known [Stones guitarist] Brian Jones. (Mason played a shehnai, a Persian double reed oboe, on the song.) It’s circumstances. They weren’t really planned – other than George [Harrison] asking me if I would play on “All Things Must Pass.” A lot of it just happened to be right place and the right time.
Jimmy Miller produced the Stones and also the first Traffic album, “Mr. Fantasy.”
He was brought over by [Island Records owner] Chris Blackwell to work with us.
Miller actually came here to live around Boston in the ‘80s.
I wasn’t sure where he ended up.
I got to know him a bit, but those were not good days, really. They were his cocaine days.
That’s what I understand. He was a great guy, a lot of fun [at his peak].
People here were impressed to meet him – he was a legend – but the drugs had taken hold.
That’s what I heard. It did for lot of other people too.
Your old mate in Traffic, Chris Wood, too. I guess it was a contributing factor to his death.
Chris went a lot of years ago, and pretty much the same way.
Have you been able to keep those rock ‘n’ roll demons at bay?
Oh, I’ve had my share.
Some people are able to pull out and move away and some never do.
Exactly, it’s just like any addiction. You make it through or you don’t. You get to that point where enough’s enough. It’s self-defeating. It stopped serving me anymore.
Your last studio album was “26 Letters – 12 Notes” in 2008. Are you working on any new music?
It’s a touchy end of things for me. I’ve been told I shouldn’t be negative about all this. But in a lot of ways I feel people need to be educated out there. The internet is a great tool, but unfortunately the internet is destroying all intellectual property. And the problem is people will spend five bucks on a café latte frappe mocha but they won’t spend a buck on a song. And that’s our living, copyrights. I’m not just talking just for me, I’m talking for all of us [musicians]. It is what would be our retirement or what we pass on to our kids. That has been destroyed. People refuse to pay for music, and they don’t understand it takes time and money to make this stuff. It doesn’t just magically appear. It’s not only for musicians and songwriters, but writers. Somehow, it’s sort of embedded and gotten into people’s psyche that it’s OK to do this – just grab it and take it. To me, it’s huge and it’s a shame.
Not only that, everybody would be down on the record labels – they’re bastards, they’re robbing us – but frankly the old record labels are making this look [good]. Look at something like [the streaming service] Pandora. You’ve got this company making huge amounts of money through a public stock offering, for instance, [the band] Orleans, the main guy [Larry Hoppen] committed suicide about two years ago. The thing is they get a million plays on Pandora with one of their songs and they got a check for $118.
The problem is, as people have pointed out to me, you can’t really talk about this because it’s all negative bullshit. You know what? It isn’t negative bullshit it’s just reality, what’s going on. Did they kill the goose that laid the golden egg? I don’t know. There is no recourse.
A lot of musicians say that. If you’ve got the ability and stamina to still play live, great, but royalties and record sales, forget about it.
There’s nothing really that’s been done about it. There’s some people talking to Washington, asking guys to do something, but music ain’t exactly the top priority of things.
You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Or, how do you put Pandora back in the box? (laughs) And that is the issue. The genie is out of the box and I don’t know how you legislate or make that work at all. Thank God I can still get up and play because that’s the part of it that’s left untouched.
Starts at 7:30. Tix: $35.
40 French St, Lowell, 978-970-5200 www.lowellsummermusicseries.org