Live Music + Gig Reviews

Willy Mason @ St Giles-in-the-fields, London

14 October 2009

Willy Mason and friends preached the religion of the blues tonight, and in church. Despite kicking off half an hour late – Mason blamed the postal strike – we were treated to a two hour, 27 song set, encompassing a range of styles and vocalists. He said that this was his first professional concert. It felt anything but. There was no support act, rather an intermingling of individuals who chipped in when appropriate. Mason performed solo with an acoustic guitar on several occasions, bathed in a rather ethereal green light throughout the evening.

During these songs the order of the day was gentle, lilting folk music. In contrast, his backing musicians – on string bass, accordion and ukulele – helped to create a country vibe during I Got Gold. Yee haw.

His lyrics, often featuring heartbreak and other such cheery situations, were brought vividly to life by his emotive singing. At one point, during Show Me The Way To Go Home, he got a bit teary. This apparent deep understanding of the human condition belies his age – he’s only 24, but has already supported the likes of Radiohead and Death Cab For Cutie.

Jemima James, his mother, noted that Brits had given him a warmer reception than his native country of the United States, which seemed a little sad. She then proceeded to sing one of her own songs, Cowboy Calling Card, whilst playing acoustic guitar.

Sofi Thanhauser also sang a couple of songs as lead vocal, including the lovely and gentle Bright Heart, and the atmospheric and eerie Finest Foal, which built up from just a string bass to include cymbals and Mara Carlyle on a musical saw. At one point, during Restless Fugitives, all the female singers were satin the choir stalls behind Mason singing backing vocals – a nice touch.

Carlyle made reference to the church during her song Sweet Spirit, which she wrote especially for her and Mason. She based it on a 16th century prayer that she used to sing, called Listening To The Holy Spirit. Mason dryly noted when she first came on stage that “She’s gonna build me a bar.”

The saw makes a distinctive sound, and tended to be used sparingly. It wouldn’t be out of place on an Andrew Bird song. Mara also took centre stage for Bowlface En Provence, a wonderfully joyful song she had composed after attending an electric music festival in the south of France. (It features on her 2008 EP Ancient And Modern.)

They were going to take a break after the first hour, but decided to stick it out. There was a slight delay before Pickup Truck started, during which the crowd got a bit noisy. Mason apologised for interrupting. This song marked the start of a bigger sound, in contrast to what had proceeded it, and involved the whole assembled band. It carried through onto Bossman, where the bass drum resonated through the church.

The last two songs of the main set were associated with his parents – Waiter At The Station had been written by his mother, and his dad had taught him how to play Merle Haggard’s The Way I Am. The latter had a pleasantly sauntering, bluesy feel. After this everyone left the stage, and they got a standing ovation for their troubles.

They duly came back and played a few requests, including Where The Humans Eat, from the eponymous 2004 album, which got a rapturous reception. This was followed by We Can Be Strong; sung as a duet with Nina Violet, it succeeded in making hairs stand on end. In all, then, and as one member of the audience interjected at one point: “Cracking!”

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