Still Some Gas in Traffic's Tank

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As members of the popular British group Traffic, vocalist-guitarist Dave Mason and drummer-vocalist Jim Capaldi appeared together on only two albums in 1967 and 1968. But the prospect of seeing these two rock veterans perform together for the first time in several decades was enough to lure a decent-sized and enthusiastic crowd to the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana on Saturday night.

Physically, a lot has changed in 30 years. Mason and Capaldi are no longer the fresh-faced young men who were pictured on the cover of Traffic's self-titled album in 1968. Indeed, it took a few seconds to recognize the bare-pated Mason when he first appeared onstage with Capaldi and two support musicians.

Thankfully, when it came to delivering the music, the pair proved that there's still a good measure of gas left in the tank. Mason, in particular, cut a strong presence onstage as both a vocalist and a guitar player.

(Sinister Grin preceded Mason and Capaldi with a set of darkly shaded hard rock, and Liquid Circus kicked the night off with some '80s-style frat-rock.)

Mason's singing was assured and immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with his work in Traffic, as well as with his recordings as a moderately successful solo artist in the '70s.

Mason, also a noted '60s session guitarist who played on albums by Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, was at his best when he unleashed his taut but lyrical electric guitar solos.

As an instrumentalist, he didn't do any grandstanding. He simply played with a controlled passion that brought a fluid energy to songs like Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." (Mason actually contributed to the recording sessions that produced Hendrix's beloved 1968 version of that Dylan song.)

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But a feeling of disappointment arose whenever Mason switched from electric to acoustic guitar to perform one of his pop-oriented songs. Still, a few of his lightweight tunes (such as his solo hit "We Just Disagree") proved to be pleasant-enough diversions.

Predictably, the energy level from the audience increased whenever Mason and Capaldi launched into a Traffic song. A highlight was a galloping version of "Pearly Queen." Capaldi also emerged from behind his drum kit to deliver several Traffic chestnuts in his rough-hewn but earnest singing voice.

The percussionist dedicated "Forty Thousand Headmen" to former Traffic member Chris Wood, who died in 1983. While the album version of the song showcased Wood's willowy flute playing, the rendition at the Galaxy featured swirling keyboard embellishments.

Traffic's "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" was even more radically reworked. Originally a 12-minute jazz-rock exercise, the song was transformed by the pair into a moving six-minute folk-rock tune featuring Capaldi on vocals and acoustic guitar.

Mason and Capaldi's truncated version of "The Low Spark" underscored the main reason why Mason left Traffic in 1968. He thought the group should concentrate on straightforward rock and pop songs like his own Traffic favorite, "Feelin' Alright."

But vocalist-keyboardist Steve Winwood wanted to take the band in an increasingly adventurous direction that featured longer material with stronger jazz and R&B; shadings.

The disagreement contributed to a Mason-less Traffic that went on to record daring crowd-pleasers such as "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys." The group called it quits in the mid-'70s.

But four years ago, Winwood and Capaldi reunited under the Traffic banner. The duo recorded an album and toured. But Mason--who began working with Fleetwood Mac that year--was not invited to be a part of the new Traffic, despite having voiced interest in such a reunion in previous years.

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At the time, Winwood said he didn't think Mason was an integral part of Traffic because he had been with the group only briefly. So, it was a bit of a surprise when Mason launched into a roof-raising version of "Gimme Some Lovin' " at the Galaxy.

The soulful song is considered one of Winwood's career highlights; "Gimme Some Lovin' " brought the then 18-year-old member of the Spencer Davis Group to prominence in 1966. Winwood subsequently left that band to help form Traffic. So, Mason's generous and unexpected tribute to his former bandmate added significantly to the evening's warmly nostalgic and celebratory tone.

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