Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Folk Seen: WIlly Mason

I know what you're thinking: the Parrot has been busy storing seeds for the winter that never happened, and hasn't been getting out much. Actually, the Parrot has lit on a lamppost or three the last couple of weeks and has been too busy to write about it. Actually there is a furious snowfall going on at this very moment, making me wish I'd left for work at a decent hour today. So here's one tidbit before my memory gets as cold as the weather finally is; maybe I'll come up with a few more shorties until I finish some of the longer posts I'm working on.

Last Thursday I was dutifully browsing the Village Voice in search of some very hot alternative musical act. (Alternative to what? Er, Christina Aguilera, maybe?) The closest thing I could find to this description was a group (I guess) that I had never heard of (so much the better) at the Mercury Lounge. So I get off the F train at Second Avenue, and, being a New Yorker for most of my 50 years, start walking in the wrong direction. (Not merely opposite, but at right angles, which takes much more effort.) That lasts about a block or two until I figure out this is not getting me any closer to the Mercury Lounge. So I turn around. About to round the corner, I encounter a crowd outside a small club. Here's a question for you: how do you locate a very hot countercultural property in New York City: (a) read the Village Voice listings; (b) go to the East Village around 8:00 p.m. and see where there's a crowd; (c) ask H.A. Monk? Okay, (c), like flattery, will get you everywhere, but (b) is probably the better answer.

I was in front of the Rockwood Music Hall, a name that was undoubtedly chosen in the spirit that one might, say, name a punk rock trio "The Secaucus Symphony Orchestra". (Secaucus is on the tip of every New Yorker's tongue this week, having provided us with an olfactory reminder of why we go to New Jersey to fill up on gas: there's just more of it there.) The crowd outside was indeed attempting to file in sideways to the tiny club, whose few tables occupied about as much space as the tightly packed bodies standing around them. So I asked one of these hopeful patrons outside who was playing and he told me it was Willy Mason. This name meant nothing to me, but since I could see a lone acoustic guitarist on stage I asked if that was him. Indeed it is, he answered, surprised himself to find that the 8:00 performance had actually begun by 8:10. I mentioned the Mercury Lounge show I was heading for and he told me, with the authority of a true East Village resident, "this is better". Done deal, in I go - sideways, of course.

Willy Mason (could this be a stage name adapted from Mason Williams, composer of "Classical Gas"?) is a young folk singer who is, what can you say, getting around, and obviously has a bit of a following. He croons the sort of semi-alienated folk material that is popular in a day when there is nothing quite as horrible as the Vietnam War, double-digit inflation and crumbling, neglected inner cities to excite the kind of emotions of the folk music scene of the 1960's. Okay, there is the Iraq War; see Jon Pareles excellent recent piece in the Times on how attitudes towards it are obliquely reflected in conteporary music. There are still plenty of inner cities, but they are more being eyed as targets for gentrification than neglected. Double digit inflation has been replaced by 6-digit bonuses for investment analysts and fund managers. It's not time for dancin' in the street (hey wait a minute, that was the 1960's, wasn't it?) but it's not time for songs like "Masters of War" or "Southern Man" either. I guess. So Mason sings about people with various degrees of separation from one another, adding
vaguely philosophical sentiments to spice the mix. To someone he addresses as "my brother", whose girlfriend he has apparently absconded with, he asks, "Will you hold on to what is gone? Will you cling to the rock when the river moves on?" In another tune he ponders the depressing question, "If we're all dying what makes us distinct?" Nothing wrong with this sort of musing. In fact, I think he's a very talented songwriter; it takes a certain kind of sensibility to just hit that edge of alienation without going over the top. What's the alternative: dragging your aduience through the mire without connecting to them? Complacency in the face of a society that let's people steal elections and then pretends to promote democracy by force of arms? Nonsense. A middle road is all that's open. Mason strides it with confidence.

As for his music, I liked that too. Not breaking any new ground here, just solid tunes, backed by guitar work that is occasionally impressive while avoiding flashy technical tricks. (If I see one more acoustic guitarist stopping harmonics with their right hand while doing pull-offs and hammer-ons with the left I'm going to lock them in a room for a week and pipe in Stanley Jordan and Van Halen records - been there, done that, get over it...) I don't particularly like the quasi-soulful songwriting of people like Lyle Lovett and John Mayer; if I want white soul I'm going to listen to the Righteous Brothers, who were both whiter and more soulful than these guys. Folk music and blues have common backgrounds but I find that mixing them haphazardly creates a half-baked product in which one side detracts from the other. Maybe that's also why I don't like rock musicians like Bob Seger and Meatloaf (see my previous post on "1043 Greatest Rock Songs"). Imagine a blend of gospel and English traditional music, in which the rhythmic flow that carries gospel and the best Motown soul to great heights is undermined by the regularity of a folk tune, and the beauty of the folk melody is cut off by the inflections of gospel: that's how I hear a great deal of the popular music that leaves me cold. Anyway, Willy Mason for the most part avoids this and writes basic tunes, simply sung with sincerity and understated emotion.

So there's a formula for contemporary urban folk; it's not anything that, say, John Gorka or Greg Brown hasn't been doing for 15 years, but it still works, and it's not as easy as it sounds to make it happen. So welcome to the club. The interesting thing, to my mind, is that Mr. Mason, a decent performer albeit one who spends about 90% of his time on stage with his eyes closed, has built enough of a reputation to have the unerringly artsy East Village crowd waiting outside until they can squeeze in sideways to hear him. A kind of unofficial funeral was held for the New York City folk scene when the Bottom Line closed last year; the folk collective at Speakeasy, and then the venue itself, had folded many years earlier, and Gerde's Folk City went under long before that. (Perhaps it was symbolic that a final attempt to save it involved a fundraising concert sponsored by the Dr. Pepper music festival, a venue where one was one typically encountered the Gang of Four or the Talking Heads rather than Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.) Folk venues were going under, no one was coming out to the concerts, Dylan went electric, blah blah blah. Well, Dylan went back to acoustic (at least occasionally), and the folk club scene long ago shifted to Alphabet City (the name we lovingly apply to Manhattan's lower east side avenues A, B, C and I think there's a D, though even folk musicians won't go that far for a gig) and Brooklyn and college coffeehouses and the like. As for the audiences, there may be as large an audience for folk music as there ever was, but it is very diversified; nobody stands in the position of the Weavers, ready to fill Carnegie Hall, and even a semi-star like David Wilcox could not always fill the Bottom Line. But people are standing in the street and squeezing through cracks to see Willy Mason. So life can't be all bad. I guess that's what his music reflects: not all bad; not good enough to get complacent about.

Then I met my girlfriend for dinner on St. Marks Place, and realized that the structure that now holds the Chinese restaurant we ate in and (egads) Chipotle
used to be the Electric Circus. You know, I can probably get over Folk City closing, but this is a bit too much.

1 comment:

Kimberly said...

Even though the LES has fallen into the hands of NYU, it's still a place that you can always count on for good shows, good drinks, and good people.