Live at The Wardrobe on Friday, 8th March 2013
Always something of a contradiction - a grunge-attired, rock-loving, Martha's Vineyard-raised young folk singer before such a thing had become fashionable and mainstream - Willy Mason ambles on stage wearing an ill-fitting suit and a wispy prairie beard that give him the appearance of an Amish english teacher or a dust bowl preacher making ends meet by working a nine-to-five office job.
He greets the crowd with his striking, laid back, deep burr of a voice before striking up the first chord of a mesmerising set built around Carry On, his most recent album. But where the record sprinkled the acoustic-based songs with subtle swathes of electronica, live Mason plays them utterly straight with the assistance of a four piece band, which seems like a prudent decision given that these songs possess such a power in the raw that any augmentation would feel like a distraction.
He begins with a few of his more upbeat songs including Pickup Truck, his slightly satirical take on a classic country trope, Into Tomorrow, which contains vague hints of Jar of Flies-era Alice in Chains and the buoyant modern-day prospecting anthem (if such a thing is needed) I Got Gold. As good as these songs are, the set hits its stride when the pace slows down and the light bulbs strung from the ceiling begin to cast an atmospheric glow over the audience. Shadows in the Dark is starkly beautiful with a delicate falsetto vocal melody that Mason delivers with closed eyes and his head thrown back as if in raptures. Carry On, 'a song about a moth' as the singer puts it, has a simple, almost rudimentary melody, that nevertheless contains an emotional punch.
The pace picks up once again with a stellar rendition of Gotta Keep Walking, featuring finger-picked guitars and brushed drums before live favourite and generational statement Oxygen has the crowd singing along in unfettered joy to the wonderfully querulous chorus. As good as these songs are We Can be Strong, with its stirring, enveloping chorus made all the more potent by the addition of a stunning female harmony line, bests them all.
Mason closes in fitting style with the lovely, understated Hard Hand to Hold, a song whose pretty lilt masks a tough, stare-reality-in-the-face lyric about the psychological battles at the heart of human relationships. The sublime, valedictory If It's The End closes proceedings on an appropriately bittersweet note.
For such an unpretentious, uncomplicated, quiet man, Mason is an uncommonly magnetic, spellbinding performer. With nothing more than the power of his songs, he is able to hold an entire audience in the palm of his hand. Anyone who has experienced Willy Mason live is very lucky indeed. If you haven't, you really should rectify this as soon as possible.