It’s very easy to be snobby about Willy Mason. He seemed like the perfect encapsulation of the sixth form poet who got lucky, pedalling embarrassingly crude lyrics thanks to an oddly indeterminate charm. But in an unusually hushed Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, surrounded by people who don’t go to a huge number of shows, that snobbery becomes impossible to maintain – because Willy Mason clearly means a huge amount to a lot of people.
Dressed in black and eliciting look-how-he’s-changed gasps, Mason is every bit the effortless entertainer. As a younger man his faux bar-room suaveness grated, coming off more precocious teenager than worldly artist. Now, though, Mason inhabits himself calmly, with a stillness and wit that ensures he deals with well-meaning drunks and misjudged marriage proposals with equal grace.
The set is split between solo tracks and full-band arrangements, the latter of which hinge around a truly excellent drummer who knows exactly when to embellish and exactly when to pipe down. The new material sounds promising, with Mason and band exploring a series of psychy but understated ideas – as on recent track ‘Restless Fugitive’ which, for perhaps the first time in the songwriter’s career, is as much about the instrumentation as it is about the lyrics.
But really, it is the old songs that cut the deepest here – far more deeply, in fact, than they did the first time round. Beginning the set with endearingly listless solo versions of ‘Riptide’ and ‘Save Myself’, Mason gently knocks tracks that were once nearly great into something different. Still not Great, but substantial. Much of this new poignance isn’t attributable to Mason, but is reflected from the audience – an audience for whom these simple songs have clearly become touchstones, ciphers for a different moment in their lives. In the clumsy poetry of ‘Oxygen’, which has taken on different (although not more significant) meanings post-2008, the singer has managed to connect in a manner direct and effective enough to leave a sizeable portion of the crowd blinking away tears. It’s not that it’s a particularly intelligent song; it’s not even that it’s a particularly great rendition. But for the couple of hundred people here, all of whom have dealt with shit and with beauty since its 2004 release, it’s a gentle jolt of nostalgia – a resignedly melancholic reminder that simpler times have passed, and that complicated times are ahead, and that whatever happens, sometimes the simplest art, performed simply, is the most beautiful thing.