Blue Thumb 34
Released: February 1972
Chart Peak: #51
Weeks Charted: 14
Tommy Li Puma, Dave Mason's coproducer at Blue Thumb, has notified by mail various radio stations and record distributors across the country to go ahead and promote Headkeeper, in spite of the fact that Mason has brought a lawsuit against the label. For those of you who do not boycott the album, Headkeeper has plenty of moments to justify your purchase, and yet leaves you feeling that it is an incomplete, unfinished album.
Each of all the five songs on side two is a live recording of material Mason had recorded elsewhere. "Pearly Queen," a song that here is attributed to Mason and on the Traffic album is credited to Winwood and Capaldi, got itself a better treatment the first time around, simply because Winwood's vocal was funkier, grittier, more edged with irony. The song itself has enough propulsion in it that it doesn't need the extra added bit of soul that Winwood gives it, but then why not? Mason's interpretation here of "Feelin' Alright" is different from the one he delivered on Traffic. Then he sang with a whimpering, quaveringly insecure voice which, when joining the chorus, instantly picked up sarcastic strength. The change was always sudden and dramatic as Clark Kent leaping out of a broom closet dressed as Superman. In the present version, latin jazz rhythms open the song and right from the beginning all the way through, Mason sings with extroversion and authority. Now he even takes a supposedly humbled line like "Well, boy, you sure took me for one big ride," and turns it inside out to read like a gorgeous put-down. Whatever Chris Wood offered in the way of bluesy saxophone on the first version, Mark Jordan matches well with his jazz electric piano on this.
The piano is the instrument which dominates and gives body and flavor to the best of the songs on the first side, all done in the studio. Pretty but a little tense, the ivories in a high register open the first one, "To Be Free," and are soon followed by the words from Mason's voice, which has been produced to stand up-front with all its natural texture left out in the open. When Mason signals "whoa yeah," the drums, bass, and Delaney & Bonnie-type chorus break in, Mark Jordon bounces his fingers down the keyboard faster than a Bruin dribbling downcourt for a basket, and Mason accentuates everything with a "come on, come on" here and a "woooo-hoooo" there. When the song closes though, it has not really resolved itself of the energy it set in motion, and you're left feeling a bit cheated.
The two most confusing songs on the album are "Here We Go Again," and the title track, "Headkeeper." "Here We Go Again" is the case of a song whose lyrics contradict everything that the music expresses, and vice versa. Standing on their own, the lyrics are Mason's bleakest: "After you've gone I'll die some/ After you've gone I'll feel blue.../ Night-time appears like a hole in the sky/ Follow me down to my room." Mason has set these lyrics to one of his most childlike melodies, and given it all a music-box sound. Having only the tone of the rest of the album to go on, I would guess that Mason is making fun of the high seriousness expressed by the words, rather than using the words to point out an idiot optimism in the music.
"Headkeeper" has its own sinister opening that lies somewhere between the opening of "40,000 Headmen" on Traffic, and Valerie Simpson's "Sinner Man." There's a "Magical Mystery Tour" piano break, a wailing banshee guitar, and one section in which the squeak of the organ completes an idea from the guitar, somewhat like when "Love Child," the Supremes would whisper "scorned by--" and Diana Ross would fill in loudly "Society."
"A Heartache, A Shadow, A Lifetime" is the song which never went anywhere when released as a single a few months ago. That's a shame, because it really is a gorgeous number. The piano part shines with a unique humanity and brilliance, modestly keeping silent until its turn, then bursting into life.
Maybe if Headkeeper had had two sides of new material rather than just one, Mason as an artist to our view would have been standing less like "a mist upon the shore." He never has been an easy one to figure out, in his public life or in his music. With Headkeeper he by no means has painted his masterpiece, but instead has left us with some fine sketches and life studies.
- David Lubin, Rolling Stone, 4-13-72.
Mark Jordan's electric piano works and Mason's electric guitar solos are very sharp on the half-studio half-live Headkeeper, and a version of Mason's Traffic classic "Feelin' Alright" cooks. * * * 1/2
- Steve Holtje Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
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