REVIEWS: POP - Willy Mason The Enterprise London ooo99

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The Independent Culture
HERALDED AS "Dylan for the OC generation", Willy Mason cannot be blamed for feeling the weight of expectation. Still, the opening night of his UK tour was a bit early for the 20-year-old troubadour to puncture his own myth.

Despite Mason's youth, barely believable stories have already clung to him. One goes that after meeting underground stars Bright Eyes, he was invited on stage as an impromptu support act. True, although he and frontman Conor Oberst had already been brought together by keen-eared scouts. Then again, no one has denied his subsequent landmark gig was in a New York drunk tank, after he was picked up while hanging out with drug dealers and street dwellers.

It was hard to fit this backstory with the callow youth behind the mike, in a tartan shirt to pay homage to his hero, Kurt Cobain, whose open- hearted honesty informs Mason's own work. With his fresh-faced looks, a part in the aforementioned TV series would have been more like it.

Mason looked a little lost as the audience pressed close. Often accompanied on drums by his school-age brother, the singer missed him as he mumbled clumsily between songs, turning yearningly behind him. Musically, though, the son of folkie parents could pick up the slack, as he switched from bluegrass twang to delicate Woody Guthrie picking.

A huge part of his appeal, Mason's naivety was touching in parts. It was heard best in his fierce idealism and wide-eyed gaze. "Live It Up", where he dissected the heartlessness of his hometown, would melt the most cynical hearts. You could almost imagine a generation ready to rouse themselves against apathy. Sung tonight in a vacant drawl, though, other numbers lost their power.

"Hard Hand to Hold" should have been a searing indictment of how we treat the homeless as outcasts, yet Mason wavered through what should have been an unstoppable chorus. When he attempted to muster a hard-bitten wisdom, the drink-sodden "Sold My Soul" and wandering song "Fear No Pain" sounded like pastiches rather than heartfelt ballads.

Then he introduced a new number that showed a more mature form of vulnerability. Rather than the sweet innocence that pervaded his debut album, Where the Humans Eat, he asked where his friend would be "when we've mined the gold of our needs". This was from an older head that knew how much he had to lose.

Nothing could spoil the subversive anthem that rightly caused all the hype. On "Oxygen", all he had to do was state his manifesto: "I want to speak louder than Ritalin/ For all the kids who think they've got a disease." As a couple of fans tried to get people to start a clap going, the subdued crowd could only whisper his chorus.

After all the expectation, this was a low-key affair. While Razorlight's Johnny Burrell pronounces he is a better songwriter than Dylan, Mason followed the master by letting his songs do the talking. He just needs to do it with more force.