Dave Mason at the Uptown Theater in Napa. December 15, 2013.
A friend from the old days on the PSE Options floor called. He had tickets to see Dave Mason at The Uptown Theater in Napa. Mason had canceled a show in November. He to get some “emergency oral surgery.” Someone couldn’t make the rescheduled show and gave him the tickets. I’d heard great things about the venue. I even recognize the names of future acts in The Uptown’s ads. We hesitated. It would be on a Sunday, a school night, but if we didn’t go now, when would we?
It was a chance to see a musician who recorded with icons of the Sixties. Mason had been a member of Traffic. He played with Delaney and Bonnie, and he had hung out with Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones.
Our sponsor tonight was Kevin Mergardt. He lives in Napa now, and gave us a short tour on our way to the Uptown Theater. He’s learned much of the history of Napa from another colleague of ours from the PSE Options floor, George Webber. George has reinvented himself and has been giving insightful and entertaining tours of Sonoma and Napa for years. I know he does a lot of historical research. He wears authentic period costumes. George has led tours as Mark Twain and General Mariano Vallejo among other characters. Lately, he’s been traveling the world, representing Buena Vista Winery as Count Agoston Haraszthy.
We walked by the river on the way to the theater. When plans for the port were made, General Mariano Vallejo had preferred a better spot on the river, but it turned out one of the town fathers owned land around the site that would become Napa. Flooding was always a problem, but Napa became a thriving river port and connection to San Francisco. “Twenty percent of the wheat for the Union army came through Napa.”
The locals working in the warehouses and docks of Napa mixed with servicemen from nearby Mare Island Naval Station who came to Napa for a weekend fling. Napa was a wild town. There was a silver rush that added to the boom times.
We hadn’t been to Napa in a while. It was Sunday night, but the town’s boutiques, restaurants and wineries seem to be thriving. Kevin showed us the Indian grinding rock outside of the courthouse. Kathy took a picture of the First Presbyterian Church.
We passed what had once been one of the local bars. It had a large vintage sign: Fagiani’s. In the early Seventies one of the sisters who owned Fagiani’s was murdered in the bar. It was suspected that the killer was an inmate at nearby Napa State Asylum for the Insane. Grief stricken, the family closed the bar. They left the interior untouched. For years there were glasses and ashtrays left on the bar. It was frozen in time. Now it’s a trendy looking restaurant. They did keep the sign.
We can see the marquee of The Uptown for several blocks before we arrive. Enthusiastic volunteers greet us. The Uptown is a classic American Indian Art Deco movie theater. It was recently renovated. It’s an old building, but it looks new. There’s no balcony, so the theater is one big room. The web site boasts of 860 “comfy seats.” We were about two-thirds of the way back. It’s almost perfect for live music.
It’s getting near show time. Volunteers ask: “Anybody not know where they’re going?” They help people find their seats. It was hard to find anyone in the crowd who looked under fifty. Kathy commented: “If they’re under fifty, they don’t know who Dave Mason is.”
There is hooting and hollering in the crowd as the MC announced, “A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dave Mason!” It looked like three guys walked out of the audience and up onto the stage. The other members of the band looked younger than Mason. They were all dressed casual. They start rocking with one from Mason’s solo career: “World In Changes.”
The rest of the band: Jonathan McEuen on guitar. His father was a member of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Alvino Bennet on drums. Tony Patler played keyboards and sang. He’d have the Stevie Winwood parts. We’ve heard Winwood sing these songs so many times that it’s a bit jarring to hear someone else singing the Traffic classics.
The second song sounds more familiar: “40,000 Headmen.” It’s the first Traffic song of the night. They follow with “Medicated Goo.” This was great. I had wondered if Mason would play more obscure songs from his solo catalog.
Mason tells us there will be a tour next year, “Traffic Jam.” It won’t be a Traffic reunion, but Mason will get the old songs out there again. The audience tonight will be “guinea pigs.” “I have to see if I still know the songs,” he tells us. The crowd laughs. They don’t seem to mind being part of a test run. Mason can do no wrong here in Napa tonight. “I hope this is recognizable,” he says before “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”
It is recognizable, but it’s a more hard rocking sound than the version we know so well. It is strange to hear someone besides Stevie Winwood sing this one, but the singer does manage to make the song his own.
We’ll get a special treat with the next song. “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” “Fred is a very important part of this organization.” Fred is the bus driver. He joins them onstage and plays guitar. It’s another great song for the Traffic fans here tonight.
“Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave.”
I wasn’t a huge Traffic fan, but I did have a copy of the album “John Barleycorn.” It seemed like everyone had that record. I did get to see Traffic in the early Seventies. It was one of the wildest shows I ever went to. We thought it would be a break from the usual Heavy Metal hijinks that happened at most “big shows” back then. It would be a nice, mellow evening with Traffic.
Traffic was red hot right then. Stevie Winwood had real star power and sex appeal. “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” had just come out. The show was at The Kinetic Playground, a smaller venue than expected for a group this popular. The promoter made up for it by overselling the show. He just kept selling tickets. People kept jamming into the theater. It was a “festival seating” nightmare. We found a relatively safe spot in the back. Many young ladies were disappointed they couldn’t see Stevie Winwood.
Mason tells us a bit about himself and the history of Traffic. He comes from Worcestshire, pronounced “Wooster.” It’s near Wales and Stratford on the Avon. We might have heard of some neighbors of his: John Bonham and Robert Plant. The funny thing is, Mason has no trace of an English accent. I thought he was American!
He apologizes again for having to cancel in November. “Believe me, I wish I had been here.” The theater is small enough that Mason answers shout outs from near the back of the audience. Mason seems to be having a dialogue with someone in the first row. We can’t hear what he’s saying, but Mason says, “Here’s a song no one knows ... except this guy.” The crowd yells encouragement after songs. “That was great!”
“There are no old songs or new songs,” he tells us, “There are only good songs. In fact, we’re going to put them out again. No, really.” Mason will be making some of his older material available on his web site. “That’s right, you can find it at DaveMasonmusic.com.” The band repeats the web address, like on a commercial, “DaveMasonmusic.com.”
“We Just Disagree” and “I’ll Be Good To You.
Before one song Mason tells the crowd that, “You can get up and dance if you want. There’s a good chance you won’t see these people again.” Many in the crowd are neighbors in Napa. They’re pretty sure they’ll see each other again. This crowd was content to sit, although a few people did stand in the side aisles.
“It was fifty years ago we started Traffic. I was eighteen.” Mason told us about working with Jim Capaldi. “He wrote the lyrics. I didn’t understand them. Maybe if you smoked enough pot you could understand them.” This gets a laugh from the crowd. Mason says, “The hair is gone. The waistline might be gone, but the voice and these (He wiggles his fingers.) are still doing good.”
“Look At You, Look At Me.”
Mason and Capaldi later reunited in Los Angeles. They were having a great time, but Capaldi complained of stomach pains. He went back to England and learned he had cancer. The end came quickly. Capaldi had started writing a song, “How Do I Get To Heaven.” Mason thought it sounded too much like Leonard Cohen. He finished the song, but he says he lightened it up a bit.
The first encore is “All Along the Watchtower.” Mason was a friend of Jimi Hendrix and played acoustic guitar on the recording of the Dylan song. I wondered what other Hendrix stories he could tell.
Mason says he was living on a Greek island surviving on anise bread, feta cheese and retsina. He wanted to write a simple song. Could it just have one chord? No, that was James Brown. The band blasts a James Brown R&B riff. But two chords made “Feeling All Right.” “It’s been covered by every guitar band in the world.”
“Joe Cocker made the song famous, but I wrote it.” Mason was glad to get the royalties. Bank of America used “Feeling All Right” for a commercial. “That’s good. That means they have to pay me money.” The show ends with Mason’s biggest hit.
On the way back to the car we passed a large billiard hall. Through the big windows we could see and hear a band playing “Feeling All Right.”
Thanks to Kevin Mergardt who made it happen.
You can contact George for a tour of Sonoma or Napa at GeorgeWebber.com.