Photo: Chris Jensen
Dave Mason On Recording With Rock Royalty & Why He Reimagined His Debut Solo Album, 'Alone Together'
Dave Mason is charmingly blasé when looking back at his life and career, which any guitarist would rightfully give their fretting hand to have. "I did 'All Along The Watchtower' with Hendrix," he flatly tells GRAMMY.com, as if announcing that he checked the mail today. "George [Harrison] played me Sgt. Pepper's at his house before it came out," he adds with a level of awe applicable to an evening at the neighbors' for casserole.
Last year, Mason re-recorded his 1970 debut solo album, Alone Together, which most artists would consider a career-capping milestone. When describing the project's origins, he remains nonchalant: "It was for my own amusement, to be honest with you."
Fifteen years ago, when the Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer started to kick around the album's songs once again in the studio, he didn't think it was for public consumption—until his wife and colleagues encouraged him to reverse that stance. On his latest release, Mason gives longtime listeners and new fans an updated take on the timeless Alone Together, this time featuring his modern-day road dogs, a fresh coat of production paint and a winking addendum in the title: Again.
Alone Together…Again, which was released last November physically via Barham Productions and digitally via Shelter Records, does what In The Blue Light (2018) and Tea For The Tillerman² (2020) did for Paul Simon and Yusuf / Cat Stevens, respectively. It allows Mason, a prestige artist, to take another stab at songs from his young manhood. Now, songs like "Only You Know And I Know," "Shouldn't Have Took More Than You Gave" and "Just A Song," which demonstrated Mason's ahead-of-the-curve writing ability so early in his career, get rawer, edgier redos here.
Mason cofounded Traffic in 1967 and appeared on the Birmingham rock band's first two albums, Mr. Fantasy (1967) and Traffic (1968). The latter featured one of Mason's signature songs: "Feelin' Alright?" which Joe Cocker, Three Dog Night and The Jackson 5 recorded. After weaving in and out of Traffic's ranks multiple times, Mason took the tunes he planned for their next album and tracked them with a murderers' row of studio greats in 1970. (That year, Traffic released John Barleycorn Must Die, sans Mason, which is widely regarded as their progressive folk masterpiece.)
Over the ensuing half-century, Mason has toured steadily while accruing an impressive body of work as a solo artist; Alone Together...Again is a welcomed reminder of where it all began.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Dave Mason to talk about his departure from Traffic, his memories of the original Alone Together and why the new 2020 takes are, in his words, "so much better."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Where do you feel Alone Together stands in your body of work? Is it your favorite album you've made?
No, I wouldn't say it's the favorite, but it's sort of spread out. When people ask me, "Well, what's your favorite music? What are you listening to?" I'm like, "I don't know. Which genre do you want me to talk about?" I can't pick it out and say it's my all-time favorite. There are other things I like just as much.
I mean from your solo canon, specifically.
Well, even from a solo thing, 26 Letters, 12 Notes, which I put out [in 2008], went right under the radar, because trying to put new stuff out these days is … an exercise in futility. And that was a great album! Really good. [Alone Together] definitely had great songs on it, and it still holds up, redone. So, from that point of view, it's great. It's probably one of my faves, yes.
When you made the original album, you had just left Traffic, correct?
Pretty much after the second album [1968's Traffic], I moved over here in 1969, to the U.S., for a couple of reasons. Traffic was not a viable option for me anymore, from the other three's point of view. So I decided to come to the place where everything originated from, which is America. Bluegrass, which had its roots in Europe and everything else, is uniquely American music. So that, and probably the 98-cents-to-the-dollar taxes, too. But I mostly came here for musical reasons.
Which divergent creative directions did you and the other Traffic guys wish to go in?
Had that not have happened, all those songs on Alone Together would have been on the next Traffic album.
You had quite an ensemble for the original Alone Together: pianist Leon Russell, vocalist Rita Coolidge, bassist Chris Etheridge and others. Were there specific creative reasons for involving these musicians? Or was it more in the spirit of getting some friends together?
I knew Rita and a few other people from early on, being in Delaney & Bonnie. All those people kind of knew each other. Leon Russell was new. I think Rita was going out with Leon at the time. A lot of them were gathered together by Tommy LiPuma, who coproduced Alone Together with me. Otherwise, I was just new here. I didn't know who was who.
Many of those guys were the top session guys in town: [drummers] Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon and [keyboardist] Larry Knechtel, for instance. Leon, I had him play on a couple of songs because I'd met him, I knew him, and I wanted his piano style to be on a couple of things. He put the piano on after the tracks were cut.
Let's flash-forward to Alone Together… Again. Tell me about the musicians you wrangled for this one.
Well, that's my band, the road band that I tour with. [Drummer] Alvino Bennett, [guitarist and background vocalist] Johnne Sambataro—Johnne's been with me for nearly 40 years, on and off—and [keyboardist and bassist] Tony Patler.
Other than the slight differences in arrangements, there's more energy in the tracks. Other than the vocals, they were pretty much all cut live in the studio. The solos were cut live, because that's my live road band. "Only You Know And I Know," "Look At You Look At Me," "Shouldn't Have Took More Than You Gave," all those songs have been in my set for 50 years, on and off, so they knew them.
If I never had that session band on the original album and could have taken them on the road for a month, then that original album would have had a little more of an edge to it, probably. This new incarnation of it has more of that live feel. Those boys knew the songs. They didn't really have to think about them, but just get in there and play.
Aside from that, there are slightly different arrangements. "World In Changes" is a major departure, "Sad And Deep As You" was basically a live track cut on XM Radio probably 12, 14 years ago and "Can't Stop Worrying, Can't Stop Loving" is a little bit more fleshed out, which I like. The other songs pretty much stick to the originals.
"Just A Song," I think, has a little more zip to it. It's got the addition of John McFee from The Doobie Brothers, who put that banjo on it, which is cool. Then there's Gretchen Rhodes, who does a lot of the girl background vocals on these tracks.
What compelled you to change up the rhythm of "World In Changes"?
I just wanted to see what would happen, taking one of my songs and adapting it to something else. I have a version of it cut the way it was originally done, and it was a question of whether I stick to that and put that on the album or do something exciting and totally different. To me, it came out so cool. The sentiment is timeless, and I wanted something on there that was new—an older song, done in a new way.
It seems like you still feel poignancy and urgency in these songs. Besides the fact that the album's 50th anniversary just passed, why did you return to the well of Alone Together?
Well, I started playing around with doing this 15 years ago. Mostly, it was for my own amusement, to be honest with you. But then, as it started to come together, and it was approaching 50 years since the [release of the] original, my wife and some people around me were like, "You should put this out." That's how it all led up to this.
Any other lyrical or musical changes that the average listener may not notice?
As to whether this ever reaches the ears of some new people, it would be nice. It seems unless you have some Twitter trick or social media thing happen, trying to get people aware [is difficult]. In other words, if a younger audience could hear this, I'm pretty sure they would like it. You'll probably have some people out there—the purists—but otherwise, I don't know.
"Sad And Deep As You" is so much better than the original version, frankly. To me, it holds up. I think my vocals are better, which is one of the big reasons why I decided to redo it in the first place.
When you said "purists," there was an edge in your voice.
Even if people aren't familiar with the original album, I'd think your backstory would resonate with them. Your role in George Harrison's All Things Must Pass comes to mind.
Yeah, I played on a bunch of things. With All Things Must Pass, I pretty much just played acoustic guitar stuff in there with a group of people … George gave me my first sitar and played me Sgt. Pepper's at his house before it came out. I did "All Along The Watchtower" with Hendrix.
A lot of it's available on my website. There's a lot of cool stuff on there. On my YouTube channel, there's a great live version of "Watchtower" from the Journey and Doobie Brothers tour we did four years ago. But we'd be here for another half hour or more if we went over everybody I appeared with and everything I've been on.
Regarding Hendrix, that's an experience that not many other people can say they've had.
Very few. Very few. There are a lot of great guitar players out there, but there are no more Jimi Hendrixes.
You also played with Fleetwood Mac in the '90s, yeah?
I was with Fleetwood Mac from '94 to '96. We did an album called Time, which sort of went under the radar somehow. It didn't get promoted.
Why was that?
I don't know. It's not a bad album, but Warner Bros. was trying to force the issue of getting Stevie Nicks and whatshisname back in there.
Yeah, Lindsey. Christine McVie was on the album, but she didn't go on the road with us. It was kind of weird. The only original members were Mick [Fleetwood] and John [McVie]. It was a little bit like a Fleetwood Mac cover band, but it was cool. It was fun to do for a couple of years, but then they got back together again. C'est la vie. There you go.
Anything else you want to express about reimagining Alone Together 50 years down the road?
I don't think it's just the fact that it's my stuff because there are certain songs I've done that I would not address again. But the thing about those songs is that they all have very timeless themes. "World In Changes," I mean, that could have been written a month ago. To redo them doesn't seem that out of place to me.