Willy Mason blows onstage like the dust and a thousand stories from the road in the form of a man. He looks at once haggard and profoundly calm, like he knows more than he should about the world and its harshness but has reached a point of Zen-like acceptance about it and his voice reveals much the same. He sings with a Woody Guthrie-esque howl that sounds more like singing at different volumes than different notes but with a pleasing flatness permeating it that keeps it from ever being unpleasant.
He starts his set alone with an electric guitar before later being joined by assorted combinations of zither, viola and banjo which give very different sounds to the songs he plays than the versions that appear on his records, especially his latest album, the very polished and instrument-heavy ‘Carry On’. Where that album has many unusual electronic sounds you might not expect on the album of a ‘folk’ singer, the live set-up takes these new songs back to their roots.
This sound is best exemplified on the song I Got Gold. On the album it is a smoothly flowing tune that builds up to the end of the chorus then reverts back to the verse again until an electronic solo eventually kicks in. At the gig it is more measured and slower with the beat of the kick drum that Willy plays with his foot keeping a steady time until the last extended cry of “gold” gets a riotous cheer from the gathered crowd.
Willy’s tunes typically have great crowd appeal. Like any good folk song they have simple chants and refrains that can be learned on the spot and sang back with the conviction of an intrinsic understanding and belief in what the words mean, but Willy never makes any attempt to drag the crowd in, it all develops naturally. When he sings the line “when the cultures drowning in a bad dream” the audience, unprompted, immediately answers with “save myself, I gotta save myself” and this happens time and again throughout the set.
The support act is an English group called The Mariner’s Children who despite the odd technical hitch play their way through some great hypnotic tunes. A few of their songs use both the banjo and the accordion, two instruments that make fantastic sounds when used properly as they are here, and their song Sycamore was particularly enjoyable, featuring shared male-female vocals.
The encore at the end of the evening is three songs long, starting with a cover of Waiter at the Station (a song written by his parents) but the second song Oxygen is maybe the finest moment in the gig. It is a song in the old protest style, simple repetitive verses and memorable refrains listing out all the awful things that are in society, an ascending bass-line carrying the tune along until the hopeful chorus “on and on and on it goes, the world it just keeps spinning”. It perfectly captures what Willy is about as an artist, pointing out what’s wrong then shrugging and saying “so it goes“.
Willy Mason Photo Gallery
Photos: Aaron Corr