From the importance of the local folk community inhabited by both he and his parents, to his preference for playing concerts in fans’ living rooms rather than ‘proper’ venues, Willy Mason is a man who understands the power music has to bring people together and share something special between them. Stood in front of the altar of St Giles church – a disconcertingly peaceful spot in the heart of bustling, grimy Soho – he allowed the congregation into his world as he stood alongside numerous fellow musicians for an inclusive night of shared sounds.
The audience certainly had to suffer for their salvation: signs instructed people to the pub over the road for their alcohol fix, wooden pews were crammed full of numb buttocks and stiff backs, and trips to the solitary toilet had to be strategically timed to fit within three hours of non-stop music. Yet as soon as Willy launched into the lullaby tones of ‘Into Tomorrow’, all of this pain was forgotten. He carefully interspersed a number of new songs with songs he has been playing live for years, before closing with the well-loved treats of ‘Oxygen’ and ‘We Can Be Strong’ alongside Nina Violet. While many of the new songs were gentle and honest, and dwelt much more heavily on affairs of the heart than past material, this was broken up by the upbeat country vibe of ‘I Got Gold’ and ‘Pickup Truck’, which would have had everyone dancing in the aisles if their lower-halves hadn’t been entirely numbed by the seating.
Throughout Willy’s set, where he was accompanied by a backing band including his brother Sam, who drums with the lightest of touches to create a nonchalant shuffle, one-by-one the choir of female singers that had formed in the pews took to the stage on their own terms. Willy’s mother, Jemima James brought a thoroughly classic country feel with her lyricism and guitar playing, while Sofi Thanhauser, after the promising ‘Bright Heart’ disconcertingly embarked on a bizarre tale from the perspective of a horse, which could have been magical if delivered with the quirky charm of Joanna Newsom, but in all honesty just ended up being vaguely uncomfortable. Nina Violet has been playing alongside Willy for years and was musically closest to him with her accomplished, if conventional, folk songs, while token Brit Mara Carlyle created an otherworldly noise on the musical saw before transporting everyone to a blissed-out world with the cool sashay of ‘Bowlface en Provence’.
The presence of so many talented singers as an informal choir, breaking into supportive song whenever the mood took them, was enough to bring something special to Willy Mason’s music; however, the variety that came from letting them loose to bring their different styles of folk-country to the fore made for a truly remarkable evening. This delightfully unconventional concert was exactly what discovering new music should be about: organic, deeply personal, and frequently inspiring, Trust in Willy Mason’s recommendations – his taste in others’ music is certainly as good as his own.
Words: Lois Jeary
Photo: Jason Williamson