There aren’t many artists of Dave Mason’s vintage who can escape being defined by their past, and for most them — rockers who came of age in postwar U.S. or U.K., and who made their mark in the ’60s or ’70s — that’s perfectly OK. Their fans aren’t buying many records, the songs maintain durability on classic rock radio and elsewhere, and the ones who are healthy enough still take live performance seriously. And even the ones who don’t need to work still do, and thankfully, most of them still mean it.
Dave Mason’s journey is a curious one. A songwriter and singer of solid repute, and a guitarist fluent in the American blues-via-Britain vein, Mason’s deepest footprints come by way of a patchwork of songs a little sideways to his substance as an artist. Most commonly associated as a founding member of Traffic, he left the band (twice) before it had fully morphed into a vehicle for Steve Winwood’s heady folk and keys-driven constructions, although he penned a few of their earliest hits that, truth be told, probably first put them on the map. He’s also recalled as Jimi Hendrix’s rhythm guitarist on the iconic “All Along the Watchtower,” although he neither sang the tune nor penned it. Later in the ’70s, he scored a hit with the soft-rock lamentation “We Just Disagree,” although he didn’t pen that one either (that was written by his longtime guitarist partner Jim Krueger).
And the song that most people associate with Mason, “Feelin’ Alright?,” although originally cut by Traffic on their second LP in 1968, was swooped up by Joe Cocker, who made it a hit. Twice.
One of that era’s classics, if the term has any meaning, Mason wrote while chilling in Greece as a wanderlust late-teen trying to sun-bleach a woman off his mind. And if it’s commonly recognized as a Cocker hit, arguably his biggest, it is, for better or worse, Mason’s calling card.
So no surprise, as it were, that when Traffic was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the finale was a rendition of that tune, with Mason, Winwood and Traffic drummer and old pal Jim Capaldi sharing an absurdly over-crowded stage with Tom Petty, Keith Richards, Jackson Browne, ZZ Top and (!) The Temptations.
“Yeah,” he chuckles, remembering that night in a brief interview with BW. “That was Paul Shaffer’s idea. He said everybody wanted to jam at the end, get everybody on stage, and he said he wanted to do ‘Feelin’ Alright ?’ I said, ‘Yeah, fine, let’s do it.’”
The song has been good to Mason.
“Yes, it has. Covered by about 60 artists, and bar bands still play it. And I get paid for it. That’s what we do, we entertain and make music, but it’s our livelihood.”
Mason left Traffic in late 1968, having increasingly found himself at odds with the musical direction that Winwood and the rest of the band were pursuing. (“I didn’t really leave Traffic, I was put in position where I had no choice. The other three didn’t like what I did musically… even though I wrote the hits.”) He took himself to California, where he recorded his first solo album Alone Together, one of the early ’70s’ most underappreciated LPs. The album sports a who’s who of some of the top players of the day, including Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, with whom Mason briefly jammed as a second guitarist in Derek and the Dominoes, John Simon, Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge and John Barbata. Several of those tunes — “Sad and Deep as You,” “Only You Know and I Know,” “World in Changes” — are still staples of Mason’s live set today.
We mentioned to Mason that we heard “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave,” another cut from that album, on a satellite feed not long ago, taking us quite by surprise, sandwiched as it was between thumpy teen soul-hop numbers.
“Yeah, we do that one, too,” Mason says.
Mason has recorded intermittently since those early days — notably, 26 Letters, 12 Notes from 2008. Striking a keen and concise posture between songwriter and bluesman, Mason’s singing and playing are both letter perfect.
“That was a great album,” Mason observes, “and if radio was doing the job it should be doing, it would have a sold few records. But of course, radio isn’t. It’s still very powerful, but there’s nobody home.”
We told him we loved “You’re Standing in My Light”:
Don’t you know that in this world/You get what you deserve/ So when your back’s against the wall/You better not lose your nerve
“Yeah, Jim [Capaldi] wrote that one,” Mason says. “It was about Alexander the Great.”
Mason’s other passion has been veterans’ support. He and longtime friend Ted Knapp founded Rock Our Vets, providing assistance to homeless and struggling veterans finding their way back into the post-service world.
“We support all uniform services, mostly the vets but also law enforcement, fire. If the government took better care of them, we wouldn’t exist. We try to do what we can.
“Actually, what we’re really proud of, we got picked to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior this year. We’re a small charity, so everything we get goes where it’s supposed to. We don’t just look for money; they need things. Clothes, computers… a car you want to donate. They need things. “
Mason says he’s been back to England “maybe twice” since 1969, having long since lost his West Midlands accent, and he and his band are 100-show-a-year road warriors now, primarily stateside. At 72, his playing and singing is as good as ever (“My knees aren’t too good, but the hands are fine.”) and he carries his history proudly, if not altogether boisterously. He’s also been mixing up his dates lately with iconic Stax guitarist/producer Steve Cropper.
“My outlook on life is that I’m just passin’ through. Passin’ through, and trying to leave things in a better place than I found them.”
ON THE BILL: Dave Mason. 8 p.m. Sunday, March 10, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, bouldertheater.com. Tickets are $40-$75.