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.