Dressed in a dark suit and with hair slicked back, Willy Mason’s stage entrance has more than a hint of the Johnny Cash about it. His self-introduction: “Hello, I’m Willy Mason”, completes the scene, set perfectly for a steady rendition of some old classics and a sprinkling of new songs. I say old classics. This room is full of people who look far too young to remember Mason’s debut into the public consciousness, nearly a decade ago. The popularity of his song Oxygen got him mis-cast as a protest singer and he quickly became flavour of the month before he headed back home to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to see to some family business for a while. Since then he’s flickered in and out of the UK, and it’s been five whole years since the last album, If The Ocean Gets Rough, was released. Nevertheless, fans who have been following Mason’s movements since those yonder days will recognise stalwarts such as Save Myself, Pick Up Truck and Where The Humans Eat, each bearing the steady pace, low vocals and simple orchestration (one guitar, deftly played) that characterises his music. It’s hard not to sing along to the brightly renovated I Got Gold, the first single from Carry On, the brand-new full-length released on December 3. Thanking the mostly inattentive, loudly chattering audience for having him, Mason leaves the stage promising a good time lies ahead.
Then Ben Howard walks onto the stage, and everything gets a little bit crazy. This 25-year-old surfer is a long way from the sea, but from my birds-eye balcony view it seems the audience, packed in tightly and containing at least one screaming teenage girl, clamour at the stage in a manner not unlike waves as the understated Everything opens tonight’s set. This makes perfect way for the real gem of Diamonds, which enjoys a beautifully elongated intro courtesy of India Bourne on the cello. Blossoming straight into Old Pine ensures Howard and the band have the audience hook, line and sinker before taking a chance with Oats In The Water, a striking track from the very newly-released Burgh Island EP. Deep in tone and darkly elusive in matter, if the debut Every Kingdom was the soundtrack for a seaside summer, then Burgh Island, and Oats in particular, is the perfect companion to a cold winter’s walk in the forest. Indeed, a large pale moon-like disc is projected onto the black sheeting behind the stage, outlining in monotone a frail forest and other spectral scenes.
After that departure, The Wolves calls us back into familiarity, before Howard is left alone on stage to re-tune and explain the set list: “I put together tonight’s set list and Chris [Bond, percussionist] said to me earlier it’s like someone has taken all of our songs and jumbled them into the least sensible order. He might be right.” Alone and spotlit, he calls Esmerelda the uglier sister of Oats In The Water, and begins the frantic guitar work that hides behind lingering vocals. The mood remains melancholy as the band re-enters and the two most poignant songs from Every Kingdom, Gracious and Black Flies, are carefully laid out in front of us. Howard informs us that they’ve had a “lovely day in a lovely city”, and someone in the dark takes this opportunity to declare undying love for him, which is met with a quiet laugh and quickly followed by a triplet of songs of much sunnier disposition – Only Love, Keep Your Head Up and The Fear raise our collective spirit with their anthemic singalongability.
Howard thanks the audience for having him, like all good musicians should, and attempts exit number one. The crowd stomp and clap and start a chorus of wolf cries (from The Wolves) to entice the band back on stage for the inevitable encore. A third taster from the new EP, the eponymous Burgh Island, glistens with minimalism and quiet harmonies. The night ends on Promise, which glows with warm finger-picking of guitar and beautifully indulgent cello accompaniment. “Who am I, darling, to you? Who am I?” are Howard’s parting words to us, and judging by the unanimous adoration displayed by the broad spectrum of tonight’s audience, he is everything to everybody.