MODESTO, Calif. — Upon being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 as a founding member of Traffic, guitarist Dave Mason addressed the crowd with words that would look good on any musician’s headstone.
“Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t an age,” Mason said, “it’s an attitude.”
He would know, having been on both sides of the age issue.
Now 65, Mason is marking 50 years of playing, writing and recording music with yet another busy schedule of gigs spread across his calendar.
“There aren’t too many of us left doing the real thing,” Mason said last week in a phone interview. “So if you want to see the real thing, you have to come out and see us play.”
Mason not only still plays the “real thing,” which in his world means honest rock ‘n’ roll with real instruments and real emotion, but he has life’s union card to validate his performance. He’s lived it.
Mason was playing in and around Worcester and Birmingham, England, by the time he was 15, and at 18 formed a Ventures-style instrumental band called The Hellions with drummer and childhood friend Jim Capaldi. The band broke up and Mason took work as a roadie with the Spencer Davis Group, which keyboardist/singer Steve Winwood had joined as a 14-year-old.
In April 1967, Winwood left the Spencer Davis Group and pulled Mason, Capaldi and multi-instrumentalist Chris Wood into a new band they agreed to call Traffic after watching cars pass by one afternoon through the window of a pub.
The name would be just about the last thing upon which Mason and Winwood would agree.
Mason left the band after the first album, “Mr. Fantasy,” returning only as it went into the studio for its second album, “Traffic.” He wrote and sang four of the 10 songs on the album, including the classic “Feelin’ Alright,” while Winwood and Capaldi co-wrote and sang most the others with little if any input from Mason.
Mason again left Traffic, and his career moved forward more as a studio sideman than as a solo act or bandleader. He played guitar on the Jimi Hendrix studio recordings of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Crosstown Traffic” and backed The Rolling Stones on “Street Fighting Man.”
He toured with Delaney and Bonnie as they opened for Blind Faith — the band Winwood formed with Eric Clapton. When Blind Faith imploded after one memorable album, Winwood re-formed Traffic without Mason, then finally invited him aboard to tour in 1971.
That reconciliation lasted only six shows, after which Mason left the band for good. When the three remaining members reunited for the 2004 Hall of Fame show, continuing animosity over roles in the band caused Mason to sit out as Traffic played Winwood’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and for Winwood to offer keys but no backing vocals to Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright.”
“He wanted to do ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’ just the way we recorded it, which meant I would play bass and not guitar,” Mason said. “I played bass on about three songs back then and haven’t played it since. I wanted to have some fun playing the song. We were one of the original jam bands, but he wanted us to play the song exactly how we recorded it. I didn’t understand that.”
Yes, the frost on the musical relationship remains thick through all these years — so thick that Mason believes it’s highly unlikely that he and Winwood ever will get back together for a Traffic reunion. The other two members since have died — Wood of pneumonia in 1983, Capaldi of stomach cancer in 2005.
Mason has enjoyed widespread success as a solo artist, a career highlighted by his 1977 hit, the classic rock staple “We Just Disagree.” But through the years, fans always have wanted Mason and Winwood to patch their differences.
“Will there be a Traffic reunion?” Mason said, repeating the question he certainly gets in every interview. “You’re asking the wrong man. I have my own little thing going, but would do it. I think there would be a lot of interest in it, but I don’t think Traffic is relevant for Steve anymore.”
Music remains Mason’s driving interest. When not on the road with his band, he can be found in his home studio in Southern California, writing, recording and mixing songs. His 2008 CD, “26 Letters and 12 Notes,” was met with widespread critical acclaim but didn’t sell.
Mason said he’s no longer interested in putting together CDs of original music, but he’s embraced the new world of music distribution. As he finishes individual songs, he places them on his Web site (davemason music.com) for fans to purchase.
“The CD is dead,” Mason said. “The main problem in trying to put out a full CD is that there’s no radio left, no format out there to play new music, so no one knew I had a new CD. There’s no way to expose yourself anymore, so it’s all about playing live and it’s about social networking, which is funny because that’s the way it all started for us in the ‘60s.
“Everybody is just stealing it all anyway. They call it file sharing, but most of the stuff is just being taken. That being said, I still go out and play. I started that way.”
Mason also is involved heavily in charity work, most notably as a partner with Work Vessels for Vets, an organization that gives returning military veterans the tools to start their own businesses. The gifts could be as lavish as a boat to start a commercial fishing enterprise, or as small as a laptop computer.
His Ironstone show will pull from his entire career, including his Traffic days. He has only one rule when putting together a set list: Don’t ever be boring.
“I choose the songs that are the most fun to do live, then pick up things from Traffic and my solo career and add some new things,” he said. “The main thing is to pick the fun stuff because I don’t ever want to be bored up there.”