Dave Mason is the Zelig of rock ‘n’ roll. He came to fame in the ‘60s first as a member of Traffic, and soon thereafter launched a solo career. He has appeared on recordings by many of his friends, including Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and countless others. At one point, Mason was even a member of Fleetwood Mac. Along the way he has scored hit albums and singles of his own, and cultivated a well-deserved reputation as a superb musician.
These days he’s focused primarily on live performance, and maintains a busy concert schedule. Ahead of his September 16 appearance at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, Mason took time to chat with ROCK ON about his approach to playing his classic material, how he spent the pandemic era, and what keeps it all interesting after more than a half century onstage.
In live performances, some artists always play their songs the same way. Others like Bob Dylan rearrange them, sometimes to the point of unrecognizability. Where are you on that continuum?
Dave Mason: All my songs are pretty much the way I did them, except for the new version of “World in Changes” which is on my re-recorded version of Alone Together. If it works, it works. But I do [play] some Traffic songs that are completely different arrangements: “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” is nothing like the studio version. I have a version of “Dear Mr. Fantasy” that's coming out in November with me and Joe Bonamassa on it; it’s completely different.
If a song is done in a way where it still retains some sort of quality of what the original was, then I think it's fine. But, yeah, I've heard Bob do some things where I thought, “Eh, you should've left that alone.” I was at some corporate gig with a friend of mine, seeing John Mellencamp. He did this version of “Jack & Diane.” It wasn't until maybe halfway through that I even realized that's what it was!
You know, artists will do that just because they're bored: “Screw it, I’ll do something else.” From an audience point of view, I think most want to hear the song how it was [originally] done. The point about artists like myself – who have been making music for a long time – is that when you're on stage, it's not really about the music. You're selling memories to people. That’s what is really going on.
You played on albums beyond your own extensive catalog. You've played on sessions with Paul McCartney and Wings, George Harrison, Delaney & Bonnie, on and on and on and on. What kind of fulfillment do you get out of lending your talents to the work of other artists? Because that’s a very different thing from doing your own music.
I was never looking to be the out-front guy. Basically, I'm a guitar player; singing was something you had to do when you got started: You've got to learn the current hits of the day to get a gig. So for me, it was all about guitar playing. I'm essentially a band guy. I like being a side man, being a part of a group.
What can people expect on this tour?
I'm doing a number of Traffic-themed songs in this set, to break it up. But beyond that, we play “Only You Know and I Know,” “We Just Disagree,” “Look at You, Look at Me,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Let It Go, Let It Flow,” “Shouldn't Have Took More Than You Gave.”
For some of the songs, I have my bass player, Ray Cardwell, singing: “Pearly Queen” and “40,000 Headmen.” And [guitarist] Johnne Sambataro – John’s been with me about 45 years – he does a great version of “Can't Find My Way Home.” So I kind of mix it up a little bit; it's not all Dave.
For “Feelin’ Alright” I steal a little bit of [Joe] Cocker, a little bit of this, that. It's been done so many ways, for god's sake. 50 major artists have done it. Some young band just did it at Coachella; it's the Energizer Bunny song!
When you wrote “Feelin’ Alright,” did you have any sense at all that it might ever take on a life like that?
No! I mean, the song is a down song, the way I wrote it. It's about not feeling too good with myself. But it was the Cocker version that really took it to a different place and spawned all those cover versions.
During the lockdown phase of the pandemic, you recorded a new version of “Feelin’ Alright” with an all-star collective you dubbed The Quarantines: your former Fleetwood Mac bandmate Mick Fleetwood, Sammy Hagar and four members of The Doobie Brothers. How did that project come about?
People kept pestering me to do something on the Internet, and I was like, “Eh, I don't know. I don't feel really comfortable just doing something solo. I've never really done that.” Then, I thought, “Well, let's see. There's some artists I know that I am somewhat friendly with. And then, it was a question of just passing the recording around between Hawaii and the mainland and back and forth, piecing it together. And for something that was pieced together all over the place, it came out amazingly well.
The thing that made it work so well was that I was dealing with really professional musicians. Nothing beats being there with everybody in the studio and cutting it together, but it depends: it could work either way. For me, it's the same. It's always been all about the song. With all the technology and everything else, in the end, it's the song and the performance.
There have been at least five Best Of albums of your material. With such a large body of work and so many classic songs, how do you put together a setlist that leaves room for either new things or something you really want to play?
What I try to do for stage is put things together but give enough room to keep it interesting. A lot of the songs that I’ll pick will have instrumental breaks in them, and those are never the same. Other than “We Just Disagree,” which is something of a set piece, everything else I do has got something different going on every night musically. And that keeps it interesting for us. I have to keep it interesting for the band, otherwise you're going to be like these people that are up there just going through the motions.
Beyond that, what keeps it interesting and fulfilling for you to go out and play shows these days?
Well, I can still do it, and I can do it better than I did it 40 years ago. So, whilst I can still do it, I'm going to keep doing it.
Flautist, guitarist, songwriter and singer Ian Anderson formed Jethro Tull in 1967. With its signature mix of hard and progressive rock, folk and other styles, the band has enjoyed sustained critical and commercial success. While the personnel has changed often over the years, the group has always been a vehicle for the artistic vision of leader and mainstay Anderson. Tull is currently on tour in support of its 23rd studio album, RökFlöte. Between dates, Anderson spoke with ROCK ON, sharing his thoughts on everything from getting older to the usefulness of today’s beyond-stereo audio formats.
You celebrated your 76th birthday in August. To what degree has getting into late middle age led you toward the bigger universal themes addressed on both 2022’s The Zealot Gene and this new record, RökFlöte?
Well, I'm sure that [aging] impacts upon many people in their lives. They start to ponder their own mortality and those of people around them who are either dropping like flies or at least not feeling terribly well. Recently I had to attend the funeral of my next door neighbor who died. So it happens all the time.
But those sort of themes have probably been with me to some degree since the very early 1970s; it’s not something new. Yet perhaps there is some resolve as you get older to try and deal with subjects that have a degree of seriousness and importance rather than frivolous pop songs. I think that's the way it is maybe for other people; I have really no idea: I don't listen to other people's music, so I have no foggy idea what other people are up to. But I think that [among] people I know who are not musicians or involved in the music industry, it's quite common that you start to ponder things when you get into a period of your life where you know that the end is, if not in sight, somewhere around a dark corner.
The RökFlöte deluxe package includes demos. When you were devising the work, how much thought did you put into the eventual live performance of these songs?
For most of my life, the songs [have been] written with the idea that these are performance pieces. Of course, most of them don't get to be performed on stage; nonetheless, I tend to think of them as performance pieces. So as we go along, I'm trying to envision the way the band will play them live, the way that I will sing them and perform them. And in the case of many of the albums, they'd been rehearsed in the way that we would actually do them as live songs. We're together in a room playing the music.
And so, with RökFlöte, it was very much done that way. The demos were made to send to the band to give them a useful starting point in coming up with live performance variations on the themes in order to play that in rehearsal, then in the studio to record them, and finally to play them live on stage.
So I really do think about [it]. Particularly on the last few albums, and then going back to other albums like Thick as a Brick (1972), I very much thought in terms of the music being performed live on stage. And they were rehearsed and recorded in a tight frame of a very few weeks.
The new album’s deluxe version also includes Bruce Soord's 5.1 mix. In the ‘70s when quadraphonic sound – the historical antecedent of 5.1 Surround – came around, many people thought of it as a gimmick. Where did and do you stand on audio formats beyond traditional stereo?
I recorded two albums where, during the recording the process and doing the mix, we were thinking in terms of quadraphonic sound. And I went back to remix, from memory, the Aqualung album and Warchild in quadraphonic sound after they had been recorded and released. So I did have an experience of working in quadraphonic back in the mid-’70s. It was an interesting option, but it was hampered by the reality of trying to record the rear two channels and to encode them digitally, because the quality of digital encoding, at that point, was very crude. And they had to be cut on the quadraphonic vinyl album which meant that the encoding for the rear two channels was subject to a lot of distortion and very limited bandwidth. It was never really going to happen.
Quadraphonic sound did become the precursor for what became the CD. The idea that you could digitally encode audio signals was something that began in the ‘70s and then really took root in the early ‘80s. So that was a very useful technology in that regard. But quadraphonic vinyl albums, that was just a bit of a side show; it was never really going to happen. It was not good quality and something we could've probably done without. But having sat in many studios and listened to 5.1 surround mixes and more recently listened to things in Dolby Surround and Sony 360, I can see why it has its place.
But, frankly for me, I’m only possessed of two ears, and they are quite directional, and I enjoy listening to music in stereo. I don't really feel the need to rush out and spend many, many, many thousands of pounds or dollars on a system that would allow me to play back surround sound. I have no interest in spending that money and forever doing something to a room in my house which would render it unsaleable. Because if you're going to do that job properly, you're talking about a studio installation that's going to cost you a serious amount of money. You know, the only time I ever listen to music is when I'm making a record, so I have no interest in having some high-tech listening room to listen to other people's music!
Some artists are employing multi-channel sound onstage and in concert. What are your thoughts on that?
If you start to scatter musical sound sources around a 360 degree audio environment, well, that's not the way you hear music. Even standing on the stage, that's not the way I hear music. I guess, if you're in the middle of a symphony orchestra, perhaps that would have some credibility. But frankly, most of us on a concert stage are too busy trying to remember what note to play next rather than listening to the people around us in that kind of a way.
RökFlöte came together quite quickly on the heels of The Zealot Gene. Can we expect you to keep up that kind of pace going forward?
I have another project in mind for release in October of 2024, which I'll really start getting to grips with in October of this year, but that is a way off. I know what it's about; I know the general subject material and how I'm going to go about doing it, but I've deliberately avoided putting anything too detailed in terms of pen to paper at this point.
Because when I start working it, I want to have momentum. I want to have a gathering storm of ideas and creativity to pass on to the guys of the band. I don't want to [start] and then maybe a year goes by before I really get around to seriously working on the mastering and recording of it. An album has got to have some momentum, some life where you begin, you develop, you make some demos, you get in the studio, rehearse it, record it, and mix it, master it, do all the album artwork, and release it. There's got to be a continuity there to keep the energy level up. And the time for that is: not yet.
Jethro Tull’s September 29 live date at the Thunder Valley Casino Resort is near the end of the band’s North American leg; from there it’s off to Europe, then back to the Eastern U.S., then to Europe again. And the group has dates – including a South American run of concerts – well into mid-2024.
Grand Funk Railroad is the rarest of rock bands. A power trio coming on the scene during the hard rock era, the Michigan-based group successfully transitioned into a hit-making singles band. And when their long run of studio albums came to a close – and then their original lead singer departed for a solo career – Grand Funk Railroad kept things going, making the change into a purely live act.
More than 54 years after releasing their debut, the core rhythm section of the band – bassist Mel Schacher and drummer Don Brewer – keeps GFR on the road, playing to enthusiastic, fist-pumping audiences across the land. Grand Funk Railroad comes to the Grand Sierra on September 1, and Don Brewer spoke with ROCK ON about the group's start, its album era, and what sustains him after decades on the road.
ROCK ON: Are you a self-taught musician?
I’m pretty much self taught; I did take some lessons. I joined the junior high school band and learned how to play drums there; that's what got me going that way. But most of it was just listening to records. My dad had been a drummer back during the Depression; he used to go out and play for beer. He would show me what the drummers were doing, and then I’d sit down behind the kit and start playing.
Is it true that you started your first band in 1960 when you were only 12?
Yes. My first band was The Red Devils. The second was call Jazzmasters, and it wasn't because we played jazz! We were named after the Fender Jazzmaster guitar.
By 1964 you had joined Terry and the Pack. You experienced some success when that group scored a Top 40 hit in 1966 with “I (Who Have Nothing).” What was the most important lesson that you learned during that time?
Don’t trust anybody!
You left that band and formed Grand Funk Railroad in 1968 with Mark Farner and Mel Schacher. When you guys got together, did you feel a kinship with other Michigan hard rockers like The Stooges, MC5 and The Frost?
We were kind of outsiders. We were from Flint; growing up, we knew of these bands from places like Ann Arbor and Detroit, but they had their own kind of clique going on. Whenever anybody brought us up, we were “that band from Flint.” So we were kind of on the outside of all that. We did cross paths with some of those guys playing at some of the same teen places in Jackson and Lansing.
What kind of a music scene was there in Flint in those days?
There was none! There were battles of the bands, but there wasn't really a music scene happening in Flint. So we were sort of one of a kind.
Did the band have other artists that you looked to for inspiration?
Yeah. When we put Grand Funk together, we were kind of going down the road of Jimi Hendrix and Cream and Blue Cheer: all the power trios. That was what we were after: filling up a lot of space with three guys. And it was a lot of fun!
The band had one of its first big breaks at the Atlanta Pop Festival in July 1969, a full month before Woodstock. What do you think it was about that time and place that made it your early breakthrough?
I have no idea! That was so awesome. We rented a van and borrowed a trailer, and we got all our equipment and went down to the first Atlanta Pop Festival. Nobody had ever heard of Grand Funk Railroad. It was just a favor of a friend of ours that got us on as an opening act on the opening day of the festival. He said, “If you can get here, we'll put you on.” We walked on stage, and it must’ve been 100 degrees and humid.
By the third song, the audience was going crazy. They loved this new band, and they had no idea who we were. By the end of that set, they invited us back the next day: “We'll put you on third tomorrow.” So we came back the next day, and again the audience went crazy. Word of mouth was getting around.
And then they put us on again the third day! I have no idea what struck that audience about this band, but it just gelled. It just happened, you know? Maybe it was all the pot.
There was a time when album packaging was a significant thing. You did E Pluribus Funk with a round sleeve, and Shinin' On had 3-D art and glasses to view it. Was the band involved in that side of things?
The idea for the 3-D glasses came from a publicist, Lynn Goldsmith, who was dating our then-manager Andy Caviliere. It was a big competition. We would always use the art department at the record company, and everybody was always looking for a way to outdo somebody else.
Mark Farner was the primary songwriter in the early years, but by We're an American Band you started taking a bigger role. Was it easy and seamless to start contributing songs?
I was very encouraged. At that time, the band was very much a band, and it was just, “Yeah, go at it!” Especially when we had a hit record right out of the bag. Everybody was all on board, and everybody was totally together: “Bring all your ideas to the table.”
The current configuration of the band has been together for 24 years now. What's the secret to keeping a lineup together for so long?
I think we lucked out. Mark left the band in 1998. Mel and I wanted to continue; we said, “If we can find the right people, let's put it together and go back out on the road.” I started wracking my brain, and I knew this guy from Peavey, the amplifier and musical instrument company. He said, “You know, you've got to meet this guy, Max Carl.” I listened to some of his solo stuff, and I listened to his voice and thought, “He would be a great singer to replace Mark.” We got together with Max; Mel and I jammed with him for about a week and said, “Okay, this works.”
And then I went into my library of guitarists I knew. I knew Bruce Kulick from Kiss. I knew him from back when I was playing with Bob Seger and Michael Bolton. We flew him out, put that together.
Then we needed a keyboard player: “How are you going to make things sound like the records?” I called the people I knew at Bob Seger's organization, and they recommended Tim Cashion, because Tim had played with Bob.
And that was it! To this day, we still like each other. We don't argue, we don't fight. You know, we just lucked out.
After playing this music for more than a half century now, what keeps it fresh and interesting for you?
The audience. I never get tired of walking out in front of an audience and seeing them get on their feet. And now you see generations: people bring their kids and their grandkids, and they've introduced them to our music, so those people know the songs. You see everybody singing and having a good time with a big smile on their faces. I never get tired of it. I love nit.