Dave Mason Isn't Just Older, He's Better : Music: An evergreen of rock and ex-Traffic founder seems to be hitting a new high--with a new band and new material.

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Dave Mason is one of the evergreens of rock. A gifted songwriter, a distinctive vocalist and a masterful guitarist with a fluid, melodic, blues-based style, Mason is that rare bird whose workmanlike example makes a career in pop music seem a noble calling.

Beginning with his founding membership in the much-beloved '60s band Traffic and continuing through numerous solo and collaborative works, Mason has attracted a steadfast following with his solid musicianship and unflagging work ethic. But even Mason wasn't prepared for the response at one recent concert.

"We were playing at the China Club in Aspen about two weeks ago," Mason said in a phone interview earlier this week from his hotel room in Santa Cruz, "and there were 20 or 30 people up front who kept bowing to me every time I did a guitar solo. It was pretty funny, and rather embarrassing, actually," he added, laughing at the recollection.

The Colorado fans' over-the-top zeal might have been attributable to thin air or the power of libations if it didn't correspond to similar stories of near-idolatry emerging from the tour that will bring Mason and his current band to the Belly Up Tavern tonight.

On his last several road trips, Mason performed as half of an acoustic-guitar duo with longtime co-conspirator Jim Krieger. But around the first of the year, the British-born musician assembled a young rock trio in his current hometown of Chicago, and since his return to amplified form, the 44-year-old Mason reportedly has been wowing them at every whistle-stop.

"Jim and I did that all-acoustic stuff for seven or eight years, but that sort of thing doesn't really go anywhere," Mason said. "It's easy and it's nice, but in that context, a) I'm not able to play lead guitar, and b) it's too limiting as far as what material you can do. My new band is great--bass, drums and keyboards in addition to guitar--and it enables me to play a much broader range of music. That's good for me, of course, but it's also good for the fans, who come to hear songs from different periods of my career."

Fans first came to appreciate Mason's talents in the late '60s, when he, keyboardist-guitarist Steve Winwood, drummer Jim Capaldi and woodwind player Chris Wood (since deceased) formed Traffic. The quartet endeared itself to the progressive wing of the rock world with an innovative mix of rock, blues, R&B; and jazz to which they gave a psychedelic-pop spin.

Mason, however, preferred a simpler approach, and musical differences with Winwood chased Mason from the group after the release of Traffic's debut, "Mr. Fantasy." He returned in time to contribute, to the follow-up album, a song, "Feelin' Alright," that later became a mega-hit for Joe Cocker.

In 1969, Winwood went off to form Blind Faith, and Mason traveled to L.A. to record his debut solo album. "Alone Together," released a year later, established Mason as a star in his own right, and such tracks as "Only You Know and I Know," "Shouldn't Have Took More Than You Gave" and "World in Changes" became staples of FM radio.

Thereafter, Mason interrupted his solo career to enjoy brief stints in various touring bands, including Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Clapton's Derek and the Dominos, and even Traffic. He also made uncredited guest appearances on some pretty significant recordings. Mason played acoustic guitar on Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" and on the Rolling Stones' "Beggar's Banquet" album, and sang on Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic" and on the Beatles' "Across the Universe."

Since 1977, when he scored his last substantial hit with "We Just Disagree," Mason's output has been somewhat sporadic. But his current, beefed-up approach coincides with a new batch of songs that some say are among the best he has ever written. Mason concurs, and then he goes a step further in assessing the state of his music.

"I've been collaborating with some people on the new material," he said. "A couple of the songs were written by an old friend, Jerry Williams, who's got songs on Bonnie Raitt's latest album and on Clapton's latest. I wrote another tune with Frankie Previtt, who wrote the music for the movie 'Dirty Dancing.' I've never been particularly prolific--it takes me rather a while to finish songs. And besides, I'm way past the point where everything I do has to be my own material."

Mason said that some of the new material has a reggae influence, and he describes one song, Williams' "Passing Through the Flame," as "a great ballad," but he was quick to offer assurance that he hasn't abandoned his style--whatever that might be.

"I've always written songs in different styles. I'm not a blues act or a country act; I go for the song and the content and whether or not the rhythm catches my fancy," he said. "I never consciously think about new directions or anything. I mean, this is what I do, I'm a working musician. The bills have a habit of coming due every month, and I have to keep pace. Frankly, I feel that in many ways I'm at my peak right now; my guitar playing's better than it's ever been."

According to Mason's manager, Skip Taylor, the performer's current demo of 10 new songs is raising some eyebrows in industry circles. Taylor is in discussions with major labels about a new record deal.

"The people I've played it for keep saying things like, 'Where has he been? Where did this stuff come from?' They're all blown away by the music he's making these days," Taylor said in a recent long-distance phone conversation. Mason himself alluded to some artists who might make guest appearances on the eventual opus.

"There's a good chance that Steve (Winwood) will play on it," Mason said. "He played on my last one. And I have one song I'd love Crosby, Stills and Nash to sing on. I can't think of any other record that has the three of them just singing background."

The mention of Winwood prompts a perhaps obvious question about the likelihood of a Traffic reunion, which, in turn, elicits a somewhat surprising response.

"You'd have to ask Steve about that," Mason said. "Personally, I think it'd be great to do, and I think it'd be great for (Winwood) to do it, too. I thought his 'Back in the High Life' was a good album, but I'm not particularly fond of the stuff that's come after that. It just doesn't have the strong content or the staying power that his Traffic material had.

"I think an awful lot of people in this country would come out to hear a Traffic tour, and I've brought up the subject several times with him. Frankly, I'm sick of asking. Capaldi would love to do it, too. There's an awful lot of years there and a lot of good music that ties things together for a number of people.

"Until that happens, though," Mason added, "I'm perfectly content to play my own music. After all these years, I'm still having a great time."

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