The first song I ever heard from Willy Mason was a demo recording of "Oxygen", which sounded like it was recorded in his bedroom with a four-track (and it probably was). Recorded while he was still in high school in Massachusetts, the song absolutely blew me away. I couldn't believe that a high school kid could write with such maturity and sing with a baritone that oozed with decades of hard living and heartbreak. I immediately tracked down all of his demos and listened to them over and over again, still in awe. He played the FADER/Levi's lounge at SXSW two years ago, which was my first introduction to Willy in a live setting. He had recently graduated from high school (and looked like it) as he walked up to the stage with nothing but his guitar in hand. Though the daytime slot and the chatty crowd took away from the impact of his live performance, I found myself front and center listening to this amazing young man sing from his heart and I was hooked.
Last night, Willy Mason came to Chicago for a last-minute gig opening for Virgin Records' UK singer/songwriter/pop starin-the-making, KT Tunstall. The sold-out show was held at the very-intimate Northside venue, Schubas and the event was being filmed for future use. They never actually said exactly what for, but the already-small room was filled with temporary lighting rigs and camera men. It was slightly odd and made things a little cramped and a lot hot and sweaty, but the lighting was pretty damn awesome.
The room was about half full when Willy Mason walked up to the stage with his under-sized guitar in hand. To be honest, I didn't even recognize him and at first thought he was the guitar tech. The bright-eyed, short-haired young kid I met two years ago has grown up. He now sports a pair of glasses and his short, boyish haircut has been replaced with a long, unkept folk-singer 'dew. Wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, he immediately started playing. A group of middle-aged women in the corner continued chatting rather loudly, as I'm fairly sure they didn't even realize that the show had begun. I sort of wanted to punch them in the face, but for the sake of not going to jail, I refrained and they eventually ended their conversation and focused in on the magic of Willy Mason.
After the conclusion of his first song, Willy finally introduced himself and then prefaced his next tune by saying he wrote it a long time ago while in detention class in high school and that wile he doesn't normally play it anymore, he thought we'd like it. Knowing that he had likely just become "of age", I found the "long time ago" comment to be mildly amusing. The detention class song was "Live It Up", a track that was included on a self-released EP/demo from a few years back (the same recording that initially turned me on to Willy Mason in the first place). Hearing it performed live years later again had me in awe that a kid in his teens could write lines like "Next door to me the ceiling leaks, cracks stretch across the walls/like skeletons of dreams deceased, to brittle to evolve" and "shadows beneath his sunken eyes now taint all that he sees/like burned and blackened photographs, life's easier in dreams/he settles for a cheap escape, forgets all he believes." These are the words of a poet... a teenage, high school kid poet. Now in his VERY early 20s Willy Mason has become even more accomplished with his songwriting, more intense, more creative and more distinct in his vision for each individual song.
Over the course of about 45 minutes, Willy Mason played seven or eight songs, mostly pulled from his debut album, Where The Humans Eat, including "Waiter At The Station", a song written by his mother. He oozed with pride when he told us that his mother, currently a tax assessor, is moving to North Carolina to join a blues label. Music is something that comes naturally in his family, as both parents are songwriters and his brother played drums on his album.
The soft-spoken Mason ended his set by messing up the very last line of his very last song - his only mistake of the night (which would have gone completely overlooked by 99% of the crowd). He said, "damn," then "thanks," and then walked off the stage to a hearty applause from the now-full room. Besides those ladies talking during his first song, the crowd at Schubas was incredibly considerate. You could hear a pin drop during the majority of his set. The fact that his lyrics are so compelling and that he enunciates so clearly as to make sure each word can be perfectly understood seemed to suck the crowd in. Considering that the vast majority of them were there to hear a pop star who had just appeared on the Today Show, the way that Willy was able to keep them enthralled throughout his entire set with only a guitar and a few songs is a testament to this young man's unique talent.
Willy Mason's debut album, Where The Humans Eat, will be re-released by Astralwerks Records in March to coincide with his March tour supporting Beth Orton. Mason will begin work on his sophomore effort later this year and hopes to do so back in his home state of Massachusetts so that his family can take part in the recording process. I'll be counting down the days.
Click here to see a short video from last night's performance.