WILLY MASON opening for SONDRE LERCHE at the Mod Club (722 College), Monday (April 2), 7 pm. $16.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
From Phil Ochs and Gordon Lightfoot to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg, for the past four decades just about every singer/songwriter with something to say has been hailed as the next Bob Dylan.
Guitar-strumming 22-year-old Willy Mason - who recently had Pete Townshend jump up on stage to back him on a few tunes at a South By Southwest showcase - is just the latest to be stuck with the "next Dylan" tag that seems like a more dubious distinction with each money-grubbing sellout move His Bobness makes.
At least back when John Prine and Loudon Wainwright III had to deal with the albatross hung on them by the media, Dylan was still years away from playing requests at fancy corporate parties and allowing his folk hymns to be used as background music for cheesy bank commercials.
As for Mason, the kid with the world-weary voice sounds far too grounded to let the Dylan comparisons or fannish behaviour from rock icons like Townshend turn his head. Perhaps that has something to do with being raised in Martha's Vineyard by folksinger parents Jemima James and Michael Mason, who could offer some valuable perspective on what the world has in store for the working musician.
"All that stuff in the press doesn't really hit home with me," shrugs Mason. "Journalists have the job of putting what I do across in just so many words, so making comparisons can be helpful for people to get the idea.
"What affects me is when people come up to me after shows and talk about listening to my records with their kids and tell me stories about how my music has changed their lives. Some of that can be very heavy, but it just makes me more determined to keep doing what I do."
If you've seen Mason hunched over an acoustic guitar in his beaten boots, snarling image-rich tunes in a nasal drawl, it's not hard to understand how the Dylan comparisons arose.
But as far as compositions go, Mason has yet to come up with his own Blowin' In The Wind, A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall, Visions Of Johanna - or even Jokerman - and it doesn't look like anything from his critically lauded Where The Humans Eat (Astralwerks) debut will be sung by schoolchildren 200 years from now.
There is, however, a certain Dylanesque quality to the way Mason uses a hooky pop structure to convey a socially conscious message in the tune Save Myself on his new disc, If The Ocean Gets Rough (Astralwerks). The hooks prevent his pointed commentary ("When the old religion is the new creed / When the vultures copyright the word 'free'") from coming off heavy-handed or didactic. It's the closest thing to a protest song Mason has yet delivered, though it's more thought-provoking than rabble-rousing.
"I tend to write about things that are on my mind, because that's what I have most to say about. If I'm thinking about cultural things, then I'll write about the culture. If I'm thinking about good times, I'll write a good-times song."
Don't count on hearing Mason use his music to sound off on the war in Iraq any time soon. It's not because he's afraid it might split his audience; he says he just doesn't have much to offer on the subject.
"I've never intentionally gone for the political thing. There are a lot of things to be upset about, which everyone is feeling right now, but these days I think artists are reluctant to speak out unless they have a better solution. We're all looking for that solution and trying to figure what form it might take.
"If I find out any helpful tips, I'll be sure to pass them along."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Willy Mason explains why there are so many water references on his new album
What Willy Mason plans to do next