By photojournalists Jeffrey Moellering
Dave Mason boasts a resume that reads like a “Who’s Who” book of rock royalty. After founding the seminal psychedelic British rock band Traffic in 1967 with fellow hall inductee Steve Winwood, Mason departed in 1969 and has since collaborated with luminaries such as George Harrison, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Mama Cass Elliot, Graham Nash, and Jimi Hendrix, while also releasing three gold and one platinum solo record.
Despite all these achievements throughout a career spanning across parts of 7 decades, Mason still maintains a rigorous performing schedule now at 76, making regular stops around the country from the comfort of his touring bus, with no signs of slowing down. While the glitz of the Grammy awards may seem far away, Mason’s faithful fans still turn out in droves to see him, as he performed recently before a sold-out house in downtown Clearwater, Florida at the beautiful Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre.
Opening the evening was a solo acoustic and vocal performance from a young Thunderstorm Artis, who was a finalist on season 18 of The Voice. Artis is a striking vocalist in the tradition of soul singers such as Ben E. King and Otis Redding, a fine guitarist, and simply natural entertainer, with an easy smile and presence. He performed some carefully crafted originals, as well as captivating classics from Bill Withers, Nat King Cole, The Beatles and a stunning version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, performed similarly to the version made famous by the late Jeff Buckley. Thunderstorm is well on his way towards making a big boom in the industry as a true emerging talent.
After a short intermission, Dave Mason and band strode onto the stage in front of a standing room only crowd. During a recent interview with Tampa Bay Music News, Mason chuckled while adding that he’ll keep performing as long as he’s physically capable, as he loves the energy of playing before his enthusiastic live audiences. These days, most tours are not more than about 25 dates, which helps to keep the band energized, avoid burnout, and allows Dave the opportunity to retreat to his Nevada ranch to enjoy the seasons, decompress and spend time in his home studio, playing with friends and tweaking tunes for the next set of concert dates.
Dave’s current lineup features a very strong 5-person band, including a 40-year collaboration with rhythm guitarist Johnne Sambatoro, and fine accompaniment as well on keyboards, bass, and drums. All bandmembers were also very capable backing vocalists, adding to the harmonic depth of Mason’s rich catalog of tunes, which range from his years in Traffic, across several solo albums, and selected cover songs, including the Jimi Hendrix version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, on which Dave Mason originally played as the rhythm guitarist.
While Mason never achieved the accolades of his fellow British guitar hero contemporaries like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimi Page, they all respect Dave as a fine and capable guitar craftsman himself, as he has played guest on many classic rock albums through the years. Mason is workmanlike in both his approach to playing and performance; no over the top flashy frills, but no mistakes either, and that may be why he’s found a welcoming community in the US, living permanently here since 1969, primarily out of his home in Carson City Nevada, outside Reno. He shows up with his lunch pail and does the job right like a steady carpenter, and that has earned the respect of his loyal fan base.
During our recent interview with him, we asked whether there would be an accompanying European tour, to which he responded, “The US is where I’ve lived since 1969; it’s where my fans are and where I made my career. I love it here.” During the 1960s, many up and coming British artists dreamed of “making it big in the USA”. Mason became a fixture in the burgeoning LA scene and was requested to play on many poplar artists songs, owing to his reputation as a complementary asset by not overplaying and adding the appropriate flourishes to a tune. It’s been a successful ride ever since, for which he’s truly grateful.
After a crisp 75-minute set of selected classics, including some fresh and tasteful arrangements of famous Traffic songs, Dave brought out the young phenom Thunderstorm Artis to play an encore on probably his most legendary song, “Feelin’ Alright”, written by Mason at the tender age of only 20. The song has been covered by many top stars, probably most famously by Joe Cocker. Dave believes it’s important to nurture the next generation of upcoming artists, as he was given the opportunity to do from a young age. Thunderstorm brought great energy and another layer of harmonic counterpoint to the classic tune. By that time, the entire crowd was on its feet, singing and dancing to its famous chorus. Dave Mason is still surely Feelin’ Alright, and as long as he is, you can be sure he’ll continue making stops at a venue near you to deliver his classic collection of rock songs with his soulful smoky voice and easy grace. With such a positive message in today’s turbulent times, Dave’s endearing faithful will no doubt keep packing theaters in appreciation.