Headed to town for a pair of shows, I spoke with Traffic co-founder Dave Mason about what it’s like to re-work classic Traffic songs on his current “Traffic Jam” tour, the thought process behind his new album Futures Past and his experiences in the studio with Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and more…
Alongside Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood, Dave Mason co-founded English rockers Traffic in 1967 and worked closely with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers primarily on their first two albums: Mr. Fantasy in 1967 and the self-titled Traffic in 1968. Celebrating the legacy he helped establish with the incredibly diverse group, Mason arrives in Chicago Friday night leading the “Traffic Jam,” a tour which features re-workings of many Traffic hits – songs like “Feelin’ Alright,” which he wrote, to “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” which he didn’t.
Across an interesting solo career that began in 1970 with the release of the Alone Together album and which continues today with the recent release of his newest project Futures Past, Mason has hit on a variety of genres – everything form psychedelic rock to world music, blues and jazz – spanning classic rock staples like “We Just Disagree,” “Let it Go, Let it Flow” and “Every Woman” in the process.
Well respected by his peers – as work on legendary projects like Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland album, the Rolling Stones anthem “Street Fighting Man” and collaborations with everyone from Paul McCartney to Michael Jackson clearly illustrate – Mason has cobbled together not just an impressive resume but an unparalleled arsenal of stories along the way.
Clearly not afraid to look back at his Traffic days past, Mason puts a contemporary spin on the Traffic canon this Friday night on the city’s south side at the Beverly Arts Center. I spoke with the former Chicagoan over the phone last week about what it’s like to look back on such a valued back catalog of Traffic hits, his memories of working with some of rock’s finest and much more…
Q. Let’s talk a bit about the “Traffic Jam” tour… I know in Chicago one show is already sold out and you guys had to add a second date – How’s the tour been going so far?
Dave Mason: It’s been going really well actually. I’m pleasantly surprised. I lived [in Chicago] for over ten years. Some of my longest and dearest friends are in Chicago. It’s my favorite city in the U.S. I’d go hang at Kingston Mines a lot. Or I’d go to Buddy [Guy’s] club [Legends] – played with him there a few times. There are some great players there. One of my favorite guitar players of all time is from [Chicago]: Otis Rush.
Q. That’s something I wanted to ask you… You’ve certainly worked with some incredible blues minded artists – The Stones and Jimi Hendrix come to mind – and on your new project Futures Past you cover Robert Johnson’s “Come on in my Kitchen,” right? Has Chicago blues been an influence for you over the years?
DM: My God… Obviously it has a very cool blues legacy. There’d be no Eric Clapton if it weren’t for the Chicago blues players. There’d be no Jeff Beck – none of them.
Quite a few people have been on me constantly about “Hey, you should do a blues album! You should do a blues album!” I can pull it off on certain things but I’m not per se a blues player – though I incorporate it into everything I do practically in some way or another.
Q. I feel like the key to a great cover is when an artist can really put an original spin on a great song. Joe Cocker obviously took a song you wrote with Traffic – “Feelin’ Alright” – and did just that. When it comes to re-working covers for your new album or old Traffic songs for the new live set, what’s the key for you in making that work?
DM: Oh God, yes! Thanks to him all people know is the cover version! You know, I remind everybody that the song is not about feeling alright. The song’s about not feeling too good myself. Joe spun it the other way.
For me, because I’m strongly orientated to the song, it has to be a cool song. The Traffic stuff that I do when I’m putting my own show together, mostly I pull material that is going to be really fun to play. Because if you’ve got to get up there night after night and play those songs so they have to be fun in some way every night.
“We Just Disagree” and stuff like that are pretty standard arrangements but I always kind of leave room in there for the musicians in my band to stretch out a little bit. I’ve always had that sort of “jam” piece of my puzzle along with the structured songs.
So I try to keep with things that are going to be fun. And part of the Traffic stuff was doing that. I mean, most of the stuff that I’m doing – pretty much other than two songs – other than “Feelin’ Alright” and “You Can all Join In” – I didn’t write. So I’m pretty much picking mostly stuff that Steve [Winwood] and Jim [Capaldi] wrote. Most of it’s taken from the first two [Traffic] albums – that era. And the only other thing that really I do in the show – because I figured I should put it in even though I wasn’t even there – is “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.” But it’s nothing like the way it was recorded. I do a completely different arrangement of it.
Q. I think one of my favorite elements of not just your work with Traffic but your solo work as well is the fact that you cover so much musical ground – psychedelic , pop, world music, the blues, jazz, etc. In a music landscape that has this odd fascination with pigeonholing artists, you’ve kind of gotten by by being unconventional. Is it important to you when it comes to recording new music to keep things as diverse as possible?
DM: Well… It’s sort of been a detriment in some ways but no, I can’t be pigeonholed as “Dave Mason blues player,” “Dave Mason rock player,” “Dave Mason ballads,”… But I’ve never approached it from that point of view. I approach it from the songs. I always start with the song before I do anything. I write certain songs and then I look at it and say “How would I approach that musically?” So a lot of things will come out. Like “Every Woman” is very country. “Let it Go, Let it Flow” is sort of rock oriented kind of.
So I try to cover, musically, as much ground as I can because frankly, I’d probably be bored just doing one style. It doesn’t fulfill me. But mostly it’s because I come from a song point of view.
Q. And I’ve heard you say that a few times now – that you come from a song point of view. When it comes to something like putting together your new album Futures Past, I get the feeling it’s more a collection of songs than it is something that was thought about at some point in terms of a full album…
DM: I’ve always done that to be honest with you. That’s essentially how I’ve approached all of it. I suppose cohesively the Alone Together album, I approached it with a sort of style. But that was [my] first [solo] album [in 1970] and all of those songs on Alone Together would’ve been on the next Traffic album and they would’ve essentially been approached the same way. Basically, I was just carrying forward what we’d been doing in Traffic – which was just drums, bass, guitar and keyboards. And most of everything else I’ve done, that’s been the basis for it.
So the thing with the new stuff… It’s called Futures Past because… When people talk about old material or old songs – to me, there aren’t any old songs. I can put on Little Richard and put on Eddie Cochran or Buddy Holly and they’re just as great as they were when I first heard them. They’re simple and they’re just guys playing and performing these very cool little songs. And they’ve lasted the test of time. And so the thing with Futures Past is – because I would basically just noodle around at home and do all kinds of things in the studio – most of the album is made up of stuff that are older songs. There’s a rewrite I did of “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and we do it in the show. I redid “You Can All Join In.” I took three of the songs that were on an album I did seven years ago called 26 Letters, 12 Notes (which basically nobody knows was ever released to be honest with you). So essentially, to me, it’s still new material. There was great stuff on there. And I had a really great version of “Sad and Deep as You” from Alone Together – just a beautiful version that beats the original hands down – Just really, really good. So I put that in there. And there’s one brand new song called “That’s Freedom.”
Q. I think everyone is familiar now with the story of your involvement on the Electric Ladyland album (playing on “All Along the Watchtower” and singing on “Crosstown Traffic”) but is there a single experience in the studio or just in general being with Jimi Hendrix that sticks out for you as particularly memorable or impressive?
DM: Well… I think all of the times that I got to spend with Jimi were impressive. Just the fact that I even got that close to someone that unique with that much cache and legacy is pretty amazing. The first time I saw him play – before anybody knew him when he first came to England – One night, I got up and jammed with his band at this little club. I was like, “Oh God! I better look for another instrument to play!”
I’ve played with a lot of people and been around. Stevie Wonder is another one. Stevie played on a couple of things for me that have never come out. The fact that he played harmonica on a track for me… I mean, the fact that Michael Jackson came in and did something for me in the studio was pretty amazing.
Q. So you actually cut “Save Me” in the studio with Michael?
DM: Well, I was cutting Old Crest on a New Wave in the same studio as him but in another room. He was doing Thriller. I had this one song that I needed somebody to sing a really high part on. So I was like “Well… You know… Sh-t… I’ll go ask Michael to come and sing this part on this song for me because he can sing high.”
So they were on a break over in their studio so I walked over and he was there and I said “Hi, Michael. How are you?” Yadde, yadde yadda. “I’ve got this track and I’ve got this really high part and I don’t know… I was wondering if maybe you wouldn’t mind coming and singing this part for me?”
He looks at me and says, “You know… When I was twelve years old, I did this Diana Ross special and at the end of the show me and Diana sang this song called ‘Feelin’ Alright.’ Yeah. Absolutely. I’ll do it.” That was nice.
Q. Now that is a story… What about being in the studio to work on Beggars Banquet? Is there a memory that sticks out about that particular experience recording with the Rolling Stones?
DM: Well, I had kind of been in and around those guys and I kind of knew Brian Jones somewhat. The fact is we were in the same studio – Olympic – with the same engineer – Jimmy Miller – who was brought over to produce Traffic and was producing them. So I would, at the time, go to the studio just to hang out and see what was going on. And they were working on this track – and Brian was non compos mentis at the time – so I got to sit in and play some of the drum parts. The drums on [“Street Fighting Man”] are not Charlie[Watts]. They’re a little collective group of four of us sitting on the floor beating on different drums. So that’s how I got that. I was there and they were like “Dave, come on. Here… Play this kick drum part on here.” So that’s how that happened. And then I played that weird horn at the end of the track. So that’s sort of how that happened.
*** This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
(Details on Friday’s Dave Mason show in Beverly after the jump)
(Jim Ryan also hosts “The Rock N’ Roll Radio Program” Sundays at 6PM central on WIMS and WHFB – streaming at wimsradio.com and via the free TuneIn Radio app for the smart phone or tablet – Just search “WIMS” to find it on TuneIn)
*** Please feel free to join the conversation via Facebook in the comments section below and sign up for email alerts via the form below. Thanks! ***
Never miss a story or interview! Simply enter your email address and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.
Dave Mason’s “Traffic Jam”
Friday, February 7, 2014
Beverly Arts Center
2407 West 111th Street
Chicago, IL 60655
Click HERE to purchase tickets