Something Else! Interview: Dave Mason on Traffic, Fleetwood Mac and going his own way

For those who’ve forgotten his important, though admittedly brief, early contributions to Traffic, Dave Mason’s new Jam On tour works as a free-associative reminder. He’s playing the old music, but often times in a new way.

There’s also plenty of material from beyond the guitarist’s seminal tenure through Traffic’s first two albums, 1967′s Mr. Fantasy and their self-titled 1968 follow up. Mason is delving into subsequent solo music, notably his No. 12 solo 1977 hit “We Just Disagree,” and even tracks from the post-Mason years in Traffic like “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.”

Truth be told, there’s a treasure trove of songs, connections and amazing musical moments from which to choose: Mason could play “All Along the Watchtower,” in honor of his collaboration with Jimi Hendrix on from 1968′s Electric Ladyland. Or “Street Fighting Man,” which found Mason dropping by for 1968′s Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones. He played on “Plug Me In,” from George Harrison’s All Thing Must Pass in 1970, and on 1975′s “Listen to What the Man Said,” with Paul McCartney and Wings. Michael Jackson sang on Mason’s 1980 solo track “Save Me,” while Jim Gordon memorably drummed on “Only You Know and I Know” from 1970′s Alone Together.

All along, he’s kept to the road: “I’ve never stopped touring, really,” Mason tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “Sometimes it’s been under the radar, so to speak.” That would include a stretch between 1987′s Some Assembly Required and Mason’s joining Fleetwood Mac for 1995′s Time. “I went through a long period of just performing with me and Jim Krueger [who wrote "We Just Disagree"], just acoustic. I was doing unplugged before there was an ‘unplugged.’”

In an exclusive SER Sitdown, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer discusses these amazing career intersections, from Traffic to Fleetwood Mac, and his well-received new shows …

NICK DERISO: In the new concerts, you’re doing both songs you had a hand in with Traffic, like “You Can All Join In,” but also “Low Spark” which happened after your departure. How did you build the setlist?
DAVE MASON: I approach them in the best way that it works for me, frankly. Most of the stuff we’re doing is pretty close to the originals. With “Mr. Fantasy,” I rewrote the chords for it. But “Low Spark” is absolutely nothing like the original recording. I do it as a slow blues. Even if it’s my stuff, or whatever it is, I try to find the songs that are fun to do. When it comes to the show, if I’ve got to play those songs three, four, five nights a week, they have to be fun to do. And it is. That’s the most important part. This is a great band with great guys. It’s just a small unit, a four-piece band. It just works really well.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: We sat down with Spencer Davis to sort out how his group carried on when Steve Winwood split to form Traffic with Dave Mason, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood.]

NICK DERISO: You’ve got a new EP on the way, as well — and the promised song selection there shows, once again, the kind of versatility that I’m guessing led to your departure from Traffic. I remember the earliest Traffic sides had you on sitar. You’ve always been hard to pin down.
DAVE MASON: (Laughs.) Yeah, it seemed to have been a problem with my career. To me, though, I don’t see it that way. I mean, mostly I start from a song. So, when I’m writing the song, or when I have a song I’m doing, it tends to suggest a certain style. I draw from a lot different sources. It depends on what the songs going to be. You know, I play blues — but I’m not really a blues player. I play rock, but I’m not a rock ‘n’ roll guy. I do ballads, but I’m not a balladeer. But I like that variation. To play one style would just be boring for me.

NICK DERISO: That brings me to Jimi Hendrix, who was always so much more than a blues artist.
DAVE MASON: He was extremely innovative, both playing wise and what he did in the studio.

NICK DERISO: Performing with him on Electric Ladyland must have been both exhilarating and terribly daunting. How difficult was it to return to your instrument after that? Did you feel like giving up?
DAVE MASON: I figured I should find a different thing to play! (Laughs.)

NICK DERISO: Your penchant for great pop led you to appear on Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Listen to What the Man Said,” one of their biggest hits in the 1970s. How did that happen?
DAVE MASON: Actually, they were recording in New Orleans, and I was doing a show there. A couple of the guys from Wings came by to the see the show, and we had a day off the next day. They said: “Why don’t you come down to the studio?” I’m sure Paul would love to see you. So, I just stopped by, and they happened to be cutting “Listen to What the Man Said.” Paul was, like: “Hey, c’mon, you should sit in with us.” (Laughs.)

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Former members Laurence Juber, Denny Seiwell and Henry McCullough joined us to discuss favorite moments from their tenures with Paul McCartney and Wings.]

NICK DERISO: It’s intriguing. Coincidence seemed to play along the way in your career. There was Michael Jackson performing on your song “Save Me” and, earlier, you’re appearing on the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Both happened because you were working in nearby studios.
DAVE MASON: I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, to be honest — unless I’m doing an interview. But, yeah, I’ve been fortunate enough to be in some pretty interesting places at the right time, I guess. Certainly, to have made music with them, either on my album or on theirs, was special — because they are very significant artists. But, at the time, it’s just sort of what’s happening, so you don’t really register it that way. Looking back over it all, it was pretty significant, though.

NICK DERISO: To be honest, that’s why it didn’t surprise me all that much when you suddenly showed up with Fleetwood Mac.
DAVE MASON: He was putting a band together, and asked me: “How would you feel about being part of it?” I was, like: “Well, yeah, OK. Why not? Let’s try it, and see what happens.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Most drive-by fans think Fleetwood Mac never shined without Peter Green, Lindsey Buckingham or Stevie Nicks. Think again. We dug up five terrific examples.]

NICK DERISO: Do you feel like that period has been treated unfairly by critics who focused solely on a return of Buckingham Nicks? After all, it’s a band that’s had several lineups, going back to the Peter Green days.
DAVE MASON: Oh, yeah, it’s had a number of incarnations. I could understand, from some people’s point of view, because the Rumours album obviously sold so many copies. It was so huge that that sort of overshadowed everything else. We did the album, and Warner Bros. didn’t really bother with it, frankly. So, it sort of just came out and died a death. And that was that. But we spent six or eight months making that record, on and off. It wasn’t just slapped together. The problem was that [long-time Fleetwood Mac contributor] Christine [McVie] was on the album, but she wouldn’t go on the road. That probably would have lent more credence to it. By the time we got on the road, all you had was [band founders] Mick [Fleetwood] and John McVie. So, it got to be classified as a Fleetwood Mac cover band.

NICK DERISO: “We Just Disagree” must always bring you back to your old collaborator Jim Krueger? Do you see it as a kind of tribute to him now?
DAVE MASON: Oh, yeah, absolutely. He was a great guitar player, really good. A really good guitar player. And the combination of [1970s-era organist] Mike Finnigan and Jim Krueger was a great vocal blend.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Dave Mason joined other acolytes to discuss the sweeping influence that Jimi Hendrix had on their lives and careers - and music, in general - in the 'Guitar Hero' film.]

NICK DERISO: What’s your reaction to the way people, after Joe Cocker’s cover version became a hit, so often misunderstand the true meaning of “Feelin’ Alright”? Do you just want to yell: There was originally a question mark at the end?
DAVE MASON: Well, yeah — the song is about not feeling too good myself! That’s what’s the song’s about. It’s not really about feeling alright, at all. (Laughs.) But, that being said, without Joe’s version, it would never have gotten the enormous amount of attention it got. So, you know, it’s open to interpretation.

    

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.