You never get the sense that he’s doing it to show off, but Dave Mason can drop classic-rock names like few others. Figuring into the between-song comments at his Sunday night concert at the South Orange Performing Arts Center were the sitar given to him by George Harrison, the album he made with Cass Elliot, the album cover that Graham Nash created for him, and the songs he recorded with Jimi Hendrix.
The name of his tour (which also comes to the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank on Jan. 15), “Dave Mason’s Traffic Jam,” refers, though, to his main classic-rock claim to fame: his membership in the original 1967 lineup of Traffic (he left the group in early 1968, though he rejoined for parts of 1968 and 1972). The first set of the show was devoted to Traffic material, as was the encore (“Feelin’ Alright”), and the second set included “How Do I Get to Heaven” as a tribute to the late Traffic drummer-singer-lyricist Jim Capaldi, who co-wrote it. The second set was devoted mostly to his post-Traffic years; Mason described the show, as a whole, as a “musical travelogue.”
Mason and his band (guitarist Johnne Sambataro, drummer Alvino Bennett and keyboardist-vocalist Tony Patler) opened the show with “You Can All Join In,” the Mason-written and -sung hippie anthem from Traffic’s self-titled second album. But generally, the material they did was originally sung by Steve Winwood or Capaldi (including “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” “Pearly Queen,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Stew” and “Forty Thousand Headmen”), and Mason conceded, when introducing a slow, bluesy version of “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” that the song was done in the band’s “A.D.” (after Dave) period.
Mason proudly called Traffic “one of the original alternative bands,” and he’s right, of course. In the ’60s, the group looked beyond the chart-topping pop and rock of the day to embrace jazz, folk and the kind of open-ended jamming that wouldn’t be fashionable until many years later. (He also implied he’d be interested in doing some more work with Winwood, the only other surviving original Traffic member, saying, before singing “How Do I Get to Heaven,” “He should be up here doing this with me, but we won’t get into that”).
As in the original Traffic, there was no full-time bassist (Patler played the bass parts on keyboards). But there was also no saxophone or flute (key components of the Traffic sound), so they could only re-create the original arrangements to a degree. But exact duplication wasn’t the point: Mason is just revisiting a chapter in his musical life that he remembers fondly, and interpreting the songs his own way. His voice is still strong, his guitar chops are still immaculate, and his bandmates are capable of generating fireworks on their own, so the show was completely satisfying on its own terms.
“Time for me to be a sensitive son of a bitch,” joked Mason near the start of the second set, which was devoted mostly to his years as a solo artist, and included ’70s soft-rock hits such as “We Just Disagree” and “Let It Go, Let It Flow.” But there also was room for a cover of “Apache,” the 1960 instrumental hit for The Shadows, who, Mason said, had a big influence on him. And Mason’s funky version of “All Along the Watchtower” was preceded by some memories of Hendrix (Mason played acoustic guitar on Hendrix’s studio version of this song).
As with the Traffic material (including “Feelin’ Alright,” which became a signature song for the late Joe Cocker in the ’70s), Mason didn’t try to sound like someone else when singing “All Along the Watchtower,” but did it his own way. As a member of one of the original alternative bands should.