B-List Band of the Week: Dave Mason

The B-List Band of the Week feature returns today after an extensive hiatus. Again, the point here is not to present second-rate writing about second-rate musicians, but rather to briefly highlight artists existing out of the spotlight, perhaps in an attempt to identify why they are so located. Last time, the focus was on The Outlaws, a group that, on paper, had all the makings of one Lynyrd Skynyrd but failed to materialize as such. Today, it’s on Dave Mason, a guitarist and singer frequently on the fringe of rock and roll’s main scene, particularly in the 1970s, and who continues to perform today.

In recanting Mason’s story, it should first be acknowledged that he’s unlikely to have gained the notoriety that he has without his association with the band Traffic. As it were, Mason actually came to work with Jim Capaldi before either became involved with Steve Winwood, when Mason and Capaldi became members of the same band in the mid-1960s. Mason would meet Winwood when the former became road manager for the latter’s Spencer Davis Group, eventually joining him, Capaldi, and Chris Wood as founding members of Traffic. Mason’s first hit would be the band’s second single, “Hole in My Shoe,” a Harrisonian-Indian pop-psychedelic bit that would eventually appear on the band’s self-titled release in 1968, its second album. Between Traffic’s first album, 1967’s Dear Mr. Fantasy, and Traffic, Mason would leave and rejoin the band, adding another Britpop-style song in “You Can All Join In” and his biggest hit, “Feelin’ Alright?”, to the ’68 effort.

Mason was out of Traffic for the second and final time in 1968, making his way to Los Angeles and into one of the greatest and most embryonically formative touring bands ever recorded, Delaney & Bonnie. Even as he released solo material, he continued to perform with Delaney & Bonnie, and in 1969, he played the South London gig that would be recorded and released as On Tour with Eric Clapton, an album worthy of a long article of its own, which features one of Mason’s own compositions, “Only You Know and I Know.” While any band featuring founding members of Cream and Traffic is going to be more than a little noteworthy, this one included a slew of other important musicians, including Steve Cropper (Booker T. and the MGs; see also here), Jim Gordon, Bobby Keys (later befriended Keith Richards and played saxophone on Exile on Main St.), Bobby Whitlock, and the central figure of 1970s rock and roll, Carl Radle. As AllMusic succinctly stated, “half the musicians on this record achieved near-superstar status less than a year later,” and this swollen version of Delaney & Bonnie served as the nebula that would birth both Derek & the Dominoes and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass/Concert for Bangladesh bands.

During this time, Mason recorded a duet album with Mama Cass Elliot and briefly rejoined Traffic for a third time. Entering the 1970s, Mason’s career took its form as a solo act in the pop-rock realm of the time, growing into the “adult contemporary” genre of the 1980s and 90s. He briefly joined Fleetwood Mac in the mid-90s and did a tour with former Traffic-mate Capaldi in the late-90s.

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Mason’s Best of album is a nineteen-track affair, which seems like a lot for someone with so little household-name cachet. If you, in 2012, are a real Jackson Browne-type person, you’ll probably like most of the tracks on there. If you come to it as a Traffic or Delaney & Bonnie fan, Mason’s solo career probably doesn’t offer enough grit for you. Still, he wrote “Feelin’ Alright?”, and as pop rock goes, it wasn’t a fluke. It may have been his biggest song, but he could do hooks. Hearing him outside of Traffic is like hearing Paul McCartney solo work: there will be substanceless fluff, but he’ll put a complete piece together enough to make a handful of his tunes stick with you and have replay value. Another comparison his songs bring to mind is Alabama, in that he’ll lay down and work over a good hook, but when it comes time to really crank it up, he pulls back. For Alabama, they always broke into a light, acoustic string “breakdown,” and for Mason, he just cycles back to the hook. In those voids in his songs, where you can hear them not taking the next step into a full-blown rock number, you can hear the types of music Mason must personally like and listen to– rawer blues, real country, even reggae– but when he tackles one of these genres head-on, you remember why it’s probably better, on balance, for him to stick to his pop thing. (See, e.g., “Split Coconut.”) I’ll never complain about a guy who likes slide guitar, though.

A noticeable feature of his songwriting is how personal his songs appear to be. This seems to be due less to any particular subject matter treated in the songs and more to do with his frequent addressing of the songs to “you,” be “you” an old lover or just another observer. In at least one case, though, I get the feeling the song really is autobiographical. “Show Me Some Affection,” one of my favorites of his, really does sound like a letter written to his former bandmates after they send him out of Traffic, though I’m sure my personal lens places a heavy gloss on my interpretation of his lyrics.

Also good, and representative, are “Baby…Please,” “Misty Morning Stranger,” “So High (Rock Me Baby and Roll Me Away),” and “Let it Go, Let it Flow.”

My current conclusion on Mason is that he’s good but not great. In one respect, that puts him in a massive group of performers. Whether for his past connections or his ability to write songs that are that close to being big breakouts or just because he loves some slide guitar, though, he easily is worth some added attention.

As always, if there’s another artist you’d like to see featured in this spot, suggestions are welcome.

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Previously
B-List Band of the Week: The Outlaws

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