Dr. Emmett Brown would appreciate The Bear’s Den inside Seneca Niagara Casino, because it appears to be the closest thing to a time machine that Western New York will ever experience.
I say this, because every week brings us another artist whose bones were made during a time when playing and singing live still meant something. Every week closes the gap, if only for a spell, between the depth of the past and the futility of the regrettable present.
By purchasing a ticket, the music lover enters into a contract with the performer in the hope that what they’re seeing isn’t the product of some elaborate ruse designed to purloin a piece of their wallet without getting something meaningful in return. The expectation has always been predicated on the belief that artistic integrity outweighs the desire to look cool, because any true appreciator recognizes that, once the former is achieved, the latter will ensue in due time.
The Bear’s Den celebrates this legacy by fostering an environment in which entertainers have no place to hide, no distracting array of onstage pomp aimed at insulating them from the audience’s sobering stare. It’s simply an open forum for whatever happens to spontaneously combust in the moment, and, when so much of what passes for art in 2014 feels telegraphed, such transparency deserves to be celebrated.
The latest example of the room’s power was Dave Mason’s Traffic Jam, a two-hour exhumation of the band’s material for those who lived it and those who wish they had. Mason spoiled the crowd with updated takes on “Feelin’ Alright,” “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and “Medicated Goo,” but the evening was unable to shed its tie-dyed skin.
While the physical appearance of both Mason and his fans has changed, the music remains as emblematic of the late 1960s as reruns of Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. Not even the fact that Mason armed himself with younger band members was going to stifle the funky psychedelia underlying the Traffic sound, because these guys brought a little swagger of their own to the party.
Often times, we see an aging guitarist bring in an up-and-comer to handle the heavy lifting, but Mason’s motive for unleashing Jason Roller on the world appeared to be much different. Roller stunned the crowd with his soloing and multi-instrumental proficiency yet his moments were never meant to give the impression that Mason just doesn’t have it anymore. Mason made that clear when he tore it up on the 11-minute epic, “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” a track originally sung by Mason’s bandmate Steve Winwood back in 1971.
The guitar trade-offs on display here were thrilling for the sake of the song, not because one member was looking to overshadow another.
Mason’s solo hits “We Just Disagree” and “Only You Know and I Know” also found their way into the set, which signaled a welcome change-up for those in need of a reprieve from the noise.
As with every show, the search for a deeper meaning was at-hand, and Mason did his part to not leave us hanging.
Early on, he spoke about how Traffic retreated to a ramshackle dwelling in England with no electricity or running water to write their first album, and, naturally, that got me thinking.
How many current bands would rough it in pursuit of greatness? How many younger artists are even conscious of how dedicated their predecessors were to the muse? Do today’s bands care enough about creating something meaningful that they would subject themselves to a month’s worth of social and technological isolation?
The answers to these questions are what keep us serious music aficionados up at night, because, if we didn’t have The Bear’s Den, the Western New York winters would feel that much colder.