“It’s been a while,” Willy Mason confesses. “It’s nice to see y’all.” The low-fi, alt-folkie has returned after a lengthy absence (five years, give or take the occasional low-key UK gig) to finally showcase new material.
He is greeted by someone’s mobile phone persistently going off, which the 27-year-old handles with admirable grace (“Wow, it must be a picture message”). He then kicks off with an accomplished solo rendition of 'Riptide', his gorgeously evocative song of remembrance for his hometown: “I remember when I carved my name into this cedar tree”. He follows it up with the equally enchanting 'Save Myself', also from his second album, If the Ocean Gets Rough, before languidly launching into his new material.
Mason shot to prominence as a precocious 19-year-old in 2004 with the release of his raw, impressive debut album Where the Humans Eat, which featured his smart and idealistic protest song 'Oxygen', which he, thankfully, performs tonight, eliciting a small whoop when he sings “We can speak louder than ignorance/ Cause we speak in silence every time our eyes meet.”
The Martha’s Vineyard resident followed it up three years later with the slicker If the Ocean Gets Rough, which featured the excellent 'We Can Be Strong', oddly omitted tonight. Since then, things have been rather quiet.
“We’re really crowded in here,” Mason mentions a couple of times. We certainly are, but then this substantial talent really should be performing at bigger venues by now. Earlier in his career he was lauded as a songwriter comparable to Leonard Cohen, which was clearly ludicrous, for no better reason that he lacks the man’s biting wit, but Mason did seem wise beyond years. He sings, in his low register, like a gnarled gunslinger and sounds like a blend of JJ Cale and Johnny Cash. He’s that good.
In past performances Mason was unashamedly unkempt (channelling the Seth Rogen look), here he is noticeably smarter, dressed all in black, and bearing a passing resemblance to Matthew McConaughey. He’s clearly taking matters more seriously with his crucial, career-defining third album coming up and the new material (and there’s a lot of it tonight) is strong, robust enough to catapult him into larger venues. The highlight is the sublime 'Into Tomorrow', where he sings “Shut your eyes and hope this lasts/ And let out all the demons from your face/ Don’t be afraid to take the lane/ That your thoughts choose to follow.”