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Reviews / A songwriting masterclass from Mason

Willy Mason, accompanied by Siobhan Wilson on cello, delivered something of a songwriting masterclass at the Lerwick Legion on Monday night. Photo: Steven Johnson.

THE FIFTY or so souls who ventured out to the Lerwick Legion on an unusually still midsummer Monday night enjoyed a bluesy-country treat in the form of an intimate concert from classy American troubadour Willy Mason.   

Probably best known for his mini-hit single Oxygen, which reached number 23 on the UK charts back in 2005, Mason’s career has gone a little quiet in recent years.

Only announced a few weeks ago, the short Scottish tour sees the Martha’s Vineyard-raised singer-songwriter performing a few low-key shows while taking in some of the sights and scenery the Highlands and Islands have to offer.

Many of the Martha's Vineyard-based Mason's lyrics drew on island life. Photo: Davie Gardner.

He seemed delighted to be back on stage and playing music – mostly performing solo before being joined by excellent Glasgow-based support act Siobhan Wilson on elegantly-played cello and backing vocals for a few songs.

Oxygen is a mightily impressive number for someone still in their teens to have written. Its “stronger than bombs” sentiment somewhat captured the mood of America under the Iraq-invading Bush II, a wretched president but one who seems comparatively sane set against the White House’s current inhabitant.

While that was probably the song many in the crowd were most familiar with, it was notable just how many more top-drawer tunes Mason had within his arsenal – several of which lyrically hit home with us islanders.

A number like Riptide may talk of cedar trees and pertain to life on a Massachusetts island that throngs with thousands of beach tourists every summer. But its motif – a man, disillusioned with city life after “they choked out all his dreams”, returning to the familiarity of the oceanside – could just as easily apply to a homesick Shetlander.

Utilising just an electric guitar, his grittily robust New England drawl and some foot stomping, Mason reeled off a sprinkling of songs from his three full-length solo albums.

The guitar playing of local opener Arthur Nicholson, a big fan of Mason’s work, had evidently impressed the visitor. There was some amusement when he mistakenly thanked “Andrew” for a great set, followed by a swift apology and the quick-witted Nicholson retorting: “That’s alright, Wilbert!”

Glasgow-based singer Siobhan Wilson opened the show, as well as joining Mason during his set. Photo: Steven Johnson.

Also highly impressive was Wilson, who twinned delicately sparse guitar work with her trademark breathy, swooping vocals during a short and captivating five-song set. Keep an eye out for her new LP There Are No Saints, which is released on Song By Toad Records next month.

From Mason’s opener Restless Fugitive onwards it was clear we were in the company of a proper craftsman. There is an easy, unfussy manner to both his stage presence and his understated form of songwriting, which retains subtlety without shying away from some properly catchy hooks and choruses.

Now 32 and working on new material, it was a great opportunity to hear a guy who has performed at many of the world’s leading music festivals and opened for bands like Radiohead.

Here he was enjoying a cosily intimate, informal evening in little old Lerwick, engaging warmly with a hugely appreciative audience and happily accepting a couple of song requests.

“Is it about a human or a dog?” one punter enquired of the title track to his debut album Where the Humans Eat, before the come Armageddon sentiment of the last of three encores, When the Leaves Have Fallen, brought down the curtain on a hugely enjoyable night.

Neil Riddell