by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Given their penchant for blurring the lines between rock, jazz, and folk and jamming at length on such seminal early ‘70s FM-radio favorites as John Barleycorn Must Die, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, and Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory, it’s easy to forget that Traffic actually began life as a lightly psychedelia-tinged pop-rock band that consistently churned out considerably more concise songs than those on their later discs. But then, whereas the later version of Traffic was basically a vehicle for Steve Winwood’s talents (John Barleycorn, in fact, originally began life as a Winwood solo disc), the Traffic of early years was a more genuinely democratic effort and one that alternately showcased the talents of its two leaders, Winwood and Dave Mason. But whereas Winwood would go on post-Traffic to become a major pop star in the ‘80s (racking up such massive radio hits as “While You See a Chance,” “Higher Love,” “Back in the High Life Again” and “Roll with It”) before fading from commercial prominence in the early ‘90s, the lesser-known Mason struggled to get much crossover exposure, scoring only a pair of minor Top 40 hits, but proved to be a steady and reliable source of album sales for Columbia throughout the ‘70s all the same. [In spite of his lack of hit singles, four of his studio albums from the ‘70s have gone gold, while 1977’s Let It Flow has been certified platinum.]
In spite of the much-critically-revered “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” it’s ironically Mason, not Winwood, who wrote Traffic’s most commercially-successful song; “Feelin’ Alright?” didn’t sell well as a single for Traffic itself, but Joe Cocker would cover it in 1969, taking it to #69 on the Hot 100, and it became such a signature tune for the Mad Dogs & Englishmen rocker that it would be re-issued three years later and reach the Top 40 this time, climbing as high as #33.
But Mason and Winwood were too different musically to co-exist within the band, so it’s little surprise that Mason bowed out of the band after just two albums in favor of a solo career although not before racking up a series of impressive session credits that includes playing the shehnai on the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and guitar on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and serving as Duane Allman’s short-lived predecessor in Derek & the Dominos. [It’s Mason, in fact, who you can hear playing guitar on the band’s explosive Phil Spector-produced original version of “Tell the Truth,” released – but sadly quickly withdrawn – as a non-LP single that has since become a highly-sought-after collector’s item.
Mason’s solo debut, 1970’s Alone Together (co-produced by the great Tommy LiPuma, best known for his work with George Benson, Natalie Cole, and Diana Krall and released on LiPuma’s delightful but sadly-little-heralded Blue Thumb label (later absorbed by ABC Records), remains his highest-charting solo outing, having reached #22, but it strangely gets little love from critics and today stands as one of the most criminally overlooked pop/rock albums of its time. It was also a more influential disc than it gets credit for being and might’ve been a bigger hit had it simply not been just a year or two ahead of its time: much-revered blues-rockers Delaney and Bonnie, in fact, would cover the album’s chugging opener, “Only You Know and I Know,” the following year and take it all the way into the Top Twenty, while Mason’s trademark rhythm guitar work would be imitated by many a rocker in the ensuing years, not in the least by Bachman Turner-Overdrive, who would mimic Mason’s style perfectly on such singles as “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” [Why Mason isn’t considered to be more of a guitar hero than he remains is a bit of a head-scratcher, not in the least since he also can boast of having been tapped by no less than Jimi Hendrix to play the chugging acoustic guitar work on “All Along the Watchtower.” (You can also hear Mason singing backing vocals on Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic”!) Mason can also boast of having played the guitar on Paul McCartney and Wings’ Number One smash “Listen to What the Man Said.”]
Speaking of stars, this disc is loaded with them, too: the crop of guest stars and backing players here includes Delaney & Bonnie, Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge, Derek & the Dominos’ Carl Radle, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Chris Ethridge, session greats Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner and Larry Knechtel, and Mason’s ex-Traffic bandmate Jim Capaldi, who also gets in on the writing by co-authoring the surprisingly soulful closing cut, “Look at You, Look at Me.”
“Only You Know and I Know” is easily the most well-known song here, but the surrounding cuts are nearly every bit as strong. The pastoral sway of “Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving” is a tad too pop to qualify as country-rock but vaguely foreshadows such later and iconic songs of the genre as the Allman Brothers Band’s “Melissa” and the Eagles’ “Best of My Love” while also hinting at the melodic balladry of such standouts on Big Star’s power-pop classic #1 Record as “Watch the Sunrise” and “The Ballad of El Goodo.” “Sad and Deep” is more sparse in its production but no less effective, while the verse-to-chorus shifts in time signatures on “World in Changes” are much less jarring in their actual execution than you might expect from looking at the sheet music. But it’s the freak-out of the six-minute mini-epic “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” that arguably stands as the album’s most jawdropping moment, Mason delivering one of the most emotionally powerful performances of his career on the cut.
Beyond simply containing some fabulous music, Alone Together also boasts some of the most breathtaking packaging of any album from the early ‘70s. Original pressings of the disc not only came in a tri-fold jacket with a die-cut upper edge and a small hole punched into the top so that the cover could be hung on a wall, but the vinyl itself was pressed on an awe-inspiring multi-colored slab of marbled vinyl – not an uncommon practice today in the days of deluxe 180-gram, lavishly-packaged reissues, but virtually unheard of back in 1970 when even single-colored vinyl of any sort was still rarely ever utilized for pop/rock releases. [Not until the latter half of the decade did picture discs and colored vinyl truly start to become a more frequent sighting and even those releases tended to be either promotional items or limited-edition exclusives, whereas all the first-run copies of Alone Together were pressed on splash vinyl.] The lone drawback of such lavish packaging is that it’s much harder to detect dirt or scratches on secondhand copies than it is on your standard black vinyl, so be sure to examine the record closely.
The rest of Mason’s tenure with Blue Thumb would be a spotty one – he’d follow up Alone Together with an unlikely collaborative full-length with Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas, and a half-studio/half-live outing entitled Headkeeper – but once he jumped ship to Columbia Records in 1973, he’d embark on a great run of studio albums for the remainder of the decade, beginning with It’s Like You Never Left and peaking with the commercial success of 1977’s Let It Flow, which gave him his biggest solo hit and signature song in the heartbreaking divorce ruminations of “We Just Disagree,” while 1978’s Mariposa de Oro contained a slowed-down cover of the Shirelles classic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” that would give Mason his second Top 40 solo hit.
Mason would change labels again after the failure of 1980’s Old Crest on a New Wave (which contained a duet with, shockingly enough, Michael Jackson, “Save Me,” that just as surprisingly failed to do much on the charts, stalling out at #71), but his career was sadly never quite the same after leaving Columbia, his recorded output becoming much more infrequent, and he ended up attracting more print attention after putting his solo career on hold in the mid-‘90s to briefly join Fleetwood Mac, serving as an official member on the band’s 1995 commercial flop Time. Still, in spite of all his great session work and solo records, it’s his brief tenure in Traffic that seems to remain his most lasting legacy, and he’d be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 for his role as a founding member of that band, naturally reuniting with them onstage that evening for a show-stopping “Feelin’ Alright?”