Dave Mason On All-Star Release 'Feelin' Alright', The Power of Live Music & Positivity For Our Times

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As singer, songwriter, and guitarist Dave Mason will attest, he's been entertaining fans with live performance since he was a teenager, and he's been "out every year" since, so being grounded during quarantine might come as a bit of a relief. He's not, however, done bringing positivity to audiences who might need a little bit of a lift right now.

That was the thinking behind assembling an all-star team of musicians called "The Quarantines" for a new version of Mason's hit "Feelin' Alright". Taking in the talents of Mick Fleetwood, Sammy Hagar, Michael McDonald and The Doobie Brothers, including John McFee, Tom Johnston, John Cowan and Pat Simmons, the recording and video were created one musician at a time, passing the "session" along the line until it was ready for a little editing. The entire process took several weeks to put together, but the results are seamless, and have been released to the public, along with an encouragement to support the charity MusicCares.

Mason's long history has included his time as a founding member of Traffic, collaboration on an album with Mama Cass, session work on outstanding recordings including Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" and The Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" and many more. His solo albums are also all standouts, and his first solo album Alone Together (1970) is coming up for what promises to be a refreshing new take in late 2020.

Dave Mason joins Tower's PULSE to talk about the process making the new version of "Feelin' Alright", why he thinks live performance is such a big deal for musicians and for fans, and tips on how to focus on positivity in difficult times.

Hannah Means-Shannon: What brought you to the United States, originally, and how have you liked living here?

Dave Mason: After there was no room for me in Traffic anymore, and this is where all contemporary music comes from, the US, and since taxes were about 98 cents on the dollar [in the UK], it seemed time to move!

HMS: Yes, that’s a big reason.

DM: You throw those three things together, and it was like, “You know what? I think I’m out of here.” My sister moved to America in the 50s.

HMS: So you could see what her experience had been like?

DM: There were 18 years between us, and I was probably 7 or 8 years old when she left. I visited when I was about 12 years old, where she had moved to San Diego.

HMS: That’s a lovely place to be.

DM: Not a bad place at all. Back then, California was really beautiful, with orange grove after orange grove, whereas now it’s just one big urban sprawl.

HMS: Are you in the desert in Nevada?

DM: No, people think of Nevada and that’s the first thing they think of, like Las Vegas, but I’m at the foot of the Sierra Mountains, and 30 minutes from Lake Tahoe. Northern Nevada is very different, though there is high desert.

HMS: Did you record “Feelin’ Alright” from your current location?

DM: I have my studio here at home, so this is where I laid down a basic little track with an acoustic guitar and a little drum loop. John McPhee was hugely instrumental in helping with things. We sent the basic session back and forth, from here, to where he lives in St. Inez, California, and he put his parts down. Then to Mike McDonald, then the session was sent to Sammy Hagar for vocals. Then to Pat Simmons, and to each in their own homes. That’s where Pat Simmons did his vocal part, and Mick Fleetwood did his drum part. Everybody filmed their parts while doing them, all filmed on an iPhone.

A lot of this started after seeing what the Doobie Brothers had done with their version of “Old Black Water”. So it was, “How did these guys do this? This is really good quality.” John McPhee told me how they did it, and we actually used the same guy who put their film together for them, who is actually in the video playing the organ, Rob Arthur, who actually was the keyboard player for Peter Frampton. Now he’s developed the film talent, and Rob would send it back and forth to me. We started it in April, so it was about a month or six weeks to finish it up. Everybody involved thinks it’s really good.

[Photo credit to Peter S. Sakas]

HMS: It is really good!

DM: My initial reason to do it was that I kept being bugged about doing something online, and I thought it might be interesting to do something where there’s a gathering, and everybody in there is Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame artists. And they’ve all had extensive and very successful careers, so I thought it would be interesting to put a gathering of people together like that.

The reason was just basically to give everyone a smile on their face, I guess, and break up the day after everything we’ve been going through. That was why it was called “The Quarantines’ and that was basically the impetus behind everything, but it came out great.

HMS: There is a sense of, “Why would you do this to yourselves?” because it’s so complicated to create, but it’s a beautiful outcome.

DM: Basically, no, it’s not hard at all, it’s just a little inconvenient because we’re not in the same place. Everyone pretty much worked in the same format, with ProTools, and with WAV files. The fact of the matter is, if it wasn’t for this pandemic, it would never had been made. That’s the bizarre thing about it. [Laughs]

HMS: Was there other stuff you would have been working on right now if the pandemic hadn’t hit, whether live performances or new material?

DM: I was touring for the whole year. We’ll be some of the last people to go back to work. I’m out every year, I’m never not out. 2020 was pretty much filled up, mostly the USA and some Canada dates.

HMS: Aside from spending a fair amount of time putting this amazing thing together, how have you been keeping yourself from going crazy at home?

DM: [Laughs] I’m running out of series to watch! They need to get some new ones. That, and I have some other little things. I’ve been bugged so many times about [doing] a book, and that probably won’t come out until next year at some time. That’s basically it. Having the time off, actually, for me, is something. I’m 74 and I’ve been touring since I was 18. I could use a year off.

HMS: Touring is so mentally and physically tiring, I don’t know how anyone can write music while doing that.

DM: I know some people can do it, but I can’t. Especially now, it’s a little exhausting, but I like playing. As long as I can do it, I guess I’ll just keep doing it, as long as people keep turning up!

HMS: What is it about the live performance that you get the most out of? Is it more about playing with other people, or about seeing the fan reaction?

DM: Well, it’s all of it. I love playing guitar. The totality of it is, basically, everybody is in the moment. The audience, the performers, you’re all in the moment. I think that’s the greatest part of the live performance for everybody. I don’t know, consciously, what people are really thinking about, but for an hour or two hours, everybody is in the moment. Not worrying about this or that or thinking about this or that. That’s what you get out of these things, whether music, or stage, or Broadway, it’s in the moment. It seems like what spiritual events are all trying to achieve.

HMS: Yes, I agree. I think that’s a great explanation, and I haven’t heard it put quite like that before. That brings it down to its essential elements.

You mentioned releasing “Feelin’ Alright” to give people a boost of positivity, do you have a philosophy about how to stay positive in your own life?

DM: We can all become Chicken Little at times, saying, “The sky is falling!” I try, for the most part, to stay positive, not to dwell too much on the past, to move forward. I’m essentially that way. Left on my own, I can certainly get morose. [Laughs] Which is certainly a great place to write from. But essentially, I’m a win-win kind of guy. I like everybody to win. That’s my preference.

I’m looking at all this idiocy that’s going on in Seattle, and Portland, and Atlanta, this destructive ridiculousness. It’s like Don Quixote lashing out at windmills. It’s so easy to be destructive. To say productive and positive requires a little more focus and discipline.

HMS: That’s really a great idea right there. Thanks for saying that. There’s certainly a lot that’s driving force and negativity right now, more than there needs to be.

DM: Way more than there needs to be. I’m English and I came here right off the last Great World War, since I was born in 1946. When I see people lashing out about what this country is or isn’t, especially when they are lashing out at what a bad place this is, I say, “What on Earth are you people talking about? You have no clue.” It’s just a great country, a great place, if you want to make it that way. I’m an immigrant, and most of the people I know who are immigrants are very positive about stuff. I have a few Russian friends who are always very positive about America, because they know what the alternative is!

HMS: They’ve had a real experience of alternatives. I heard that you might be working on a re-release of your first solo album, and I wondered if, looking back at your previous work, are you critical of it? Do you see it in new ways?

DM: Yes, I’m critical about stuff, but a lot of stuff that I did then was trying to achieve some degree of perfection, but you should let it go, and go after the feel and the moment more than trying to be perfect. With Alone Together, for my own amusement, I started re-recording it over the last few years, mostly because I didn’t like my vocals.

There were a couple of tracks in there I thought could be a little better, “Sad and Deep as You”, “Can’t Stop Loving, Can’t Stop Worrying”. They are pretty much the same, but I’ve fleshed them out a little, but also I did them with my band. I did that album, which was very successful, and regarded as a classic for a long time, and I had some great musicians on it. They were session players, so essentially they were coming into a studio, and I’d play them the song.

They were great musicians, but at the same time, If I’d had those players from the originally album, and we’d gone on the road for a month, and played all those songs, it would have been another level of something on that album when we recorded it. That’s what I’ve got on this new album: it’s my band!

There are a number of songs on the album that we play, that have been in my set for years, so there’s more of a spontaneous, live feel on these tracks. Really I was just keeping them for myself, with really no intention of putting them out, but somebody wants to put it out, so we’re going to release it at the end of October/November. It will be Alone Together Again. I guess I was ahead of my time with that title, “Alone Together”!

HMS: Yes, you really hit the nail on the head for right now.

DM: The package is going to be done the same way that the original one was done, with the fold-out and the multi-colored CD. I’m sure at some point we’ll do a limited run of vinyl.

HMS: Yes, please!

DM: It’s interesting that all of this came about during this lockdown period. It’s really weird. But I guess when you get lemons, make lemonade or something.

HMS: I was going to ask if in the re-recording, you were going for a more live feel. Do you think you’ve become less perfectionistic about recording processes over the years?

DM: Yes, pretty much. I will still take time on certain things. Essentially, it’s about catching the performance in the end. Otherwise you can do it so many times that it may be perfect, but it doesn’t have the feel.

HMS: Could you share with us what some of the songs are that you like most to play live?

DM: Well, pretty much all of them, and that’s why they are in the set. But what I do have is a couple of Traffic songs that I like to do, but I do my own versions, neither of which I wrote. I redid “Dear Mr. Fantasy” in a minor key with a different chord structure. Same melody. And then I have a very cool, slow, Blues version of “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”. That is actually pretty cool, even if I do say so myself.

HMS: Whoah, nice.

DM: There are a few others. “Only You Know and I Know”. I play them because for me being up there in a live set is about being able to play the electric guitar. I try to keep things fun and upbeat for me, with enough room in there. I’ve never really played the same solo twice, so I leave room for the band on, “Look at You, Look at Me” and “You Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave”, “Low Spark”. There’s a little degree of spontaneity in there just to keep it fresh for everybody. If you were up there playing the same notes every night for a month on the road, it would get very boring. It would be boring for everybody.

HMS: Also, if you come to the same town again next time, the audience might get exactly the same show otherwise.

DM: Yes, but even with songs that I didn’t write, if I don’t do “Watchtower”, I get all kinds of shit from people in the audience!

HMS: [Laughs]

DM: [Laughs] I have to do that, which is fine. It’s a great song for me, because I can just take off with guitar. There’s a version on my Youtube channel, which I put up recently, from myself, Doobie Brothers, and Journey on tour, and there’s a great version of me, Neal Schon, and John McPhee, doing “Watchtower”. It’s really cool.

HMS: Did you ever visit Tower Records?

DM: The only one that I really went to was the one on Sunset Boulevard.

HMS: Do you like collecting CDs and records, or are you more digital these days?

DM: I have some vinyl stashed away in boxes, and I do have a turntable too. I don’t really play a lot of music recreationally. I’ll go in my studio and putz around in there with stuff. It depends on how I feel. I was just listening to Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suites the other day. I started pulling up Jack McDuff, Jerry McGriff, Jimmy Smith, then jumped over to Bruce Channel doing “Hey Baby”. So it depends on my mood. Reggae I’ll put on a lot.

HMS: That all sounds pretty good to me!

DM: I’m pretty eclectic. I’m into pretty much everything except Chinese music and Rap, because I gotta have a melody.

HMS: I’ve heard people lamenting the death of melody in current music.

DM: My thing is that I don’t really have any clue what the hell’s going on, contemporarily. It’s all just reshuffling. There are 12 notes of music and 26 letters in the alphabet; have at it! Here!

HMS: [Laughs] I like that.

You may have come across Tower Records’ motto in the shop: “No Music, No Life”, also written “Know Music, Know Life”. Which of those do you like and what does it make you think of in your own life?

DM: Well, it’s true. “Know Music” is good, but that’s a whole conversation. Music is very important, though people don’t know that it is. And in the end, the people who are creating it are the ones who are getting shafted most. It’s like pushing a boulder uphill, but se la vie!

HMS: Obviously, for you, it’s not something you can walk away from, no matter how hard it is.

DM: No, but why? Well, I don’t play golf. [Laughs] As long as I can stand up there and do this, I guess I’ll do it, as long as people will listen, until I can’t physically do it, I guess. I’m going to be doing it some way or other.

HMS: Well, thank you for doing it so long, and for continuing to engage with fans. I think it does make a difference for people.

DM: Yes.

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  • James Mils

    Thanks so much for this great interview! Love hearing Dave’s thoughts on Alone Together, one of the greatest albums of all time. BTW, I thought the vocals on that record were fabulous! But maybe always searching for a better way is what makes someone an artist.

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