Independent Venue Week presents Steve Mason and Pictish Trail, The Crescent, York, January 30 2024
A LIGHT end to the darkest month. Steve Mason is a colourful and welcome visitor to The Crescent, a venue that he seems very comfortable in.
Mason was performing with his band, Calie Hough on drums and his long-serving keyboard maestro, Darren Morris, channelling everything else. The trio clearly means business, and the set has been well road tested.
Compared with his recent York concerts (December 2022 at the same venue and a December 2021 solo set at Stockton on the Forest Village Hall), there were few slower, sadder songs, resulting in a more dynamic set that also included a wholesome number of Beta Band favourites from his earlier days.
While young people will never study Mason’s words as English literature, he is a master at driving home a repeated message or a melody. No More being the most obvious, but Upon My Soul was an unexpected soaring highlight.
Throughout the 80-some minutes, Mason was in motion, all eyes fixed on him as he commanded the stage. His guitar playing reflected his energy, vigorous and strident, while his conga playing was a towel-wearing nod to his inventive use of percussion in his work. The trio more than did justice to the clever, adventurous settings from his Brothers And Sisters album, with seven numbers played.
Supporting Mason was his friend and fellow sonic adventurer, The Pictish Trail, the non de plume of Johnny Lynch. Hailing from the Scottish Isle of Eig, Lynch has a wonderful left-of-centre view of the world.
A natural performer, he was warm and funny between songs; even bringing some levity to the near-death car crash that inspired him to write In Heaven Tonight. Lynch’s set drew most from his most recent album, 2022’s Island Family, with the title track memorably conjuring a bonfire night on the island with the many dead souls also present.
His clever, animated use of beats and effects sometimes offset some pretty forgettable melodies. Lynch’s mistake-defying hand-eye coordination while wearing a large mask is an image few will forget, unlike the song he was performing.
Mason’s songs are all cut from a similar melodic cloth, but at his best, his tunes have stood the test of time. His feted work with The Beta Band was an early purple patch – tuneful but never towing any conventional line (Dry The Rain of course, mid-set this time, finding room for Squares, also excellent and the soulful Dog Got A Bone).
It was his wonderful King Biscuit Time song I Walk The Earth that brought the house down as the first encore; arguably his best tune to cap another fine Crescent night.
STEVE Mason has come a long way as an artist. Looking very comfortable in his semi-starlit niche at 47, his powerful blend of emotion and politics match the times we struggle through perfectly.
Over 15 songs and 75 minutes, it is tempting to see Mason’s songs as all being cut from the same cloth. From his career-defining Beta Band days, the formula emerged fully formed – emphatic rhythms, soaring choruses and a penchant for catchy slogans on the one hand, searing emotional honesty on the other. An unholy mix of the football crowd and the confession chamber.
You can trace the line between a song such as I Walk The Earth from his early King Biscuit Time period to the latest single No More. These were the last two numbers played but worked together brilliantly.
In his CharlesHutchPress interview before his York show, Mason describes No More as being “about a country that has had its Band Aid ripped off to expose a pustule of Government hatred. But I feel immigration has brought a massive amount of joy to my life and my country, the whole country, Britain”.
The chorus chant makes his feelings obvious, but never at the expense of the melody and the groove. As a songsmith, his touch is too sure, and perhaps fixed, to stray into political hectoring.
Mason has become more accessible as he’s grown into his solo career– the euphoric Walking Away From Love a prime example of a simple idea taken to populist heights. Talking to CharlesHutchPress, Mason hinted at stepping back from this sort of chart-busting ambition (paraded on 2019’s About The Light) back into more adventurous terrain.
Learning from the wings was opener Cobain Jones, a singer-songwriter from Stalybridge, Greater Manchester. Jones is on the up, with his cover of Bob Marley’s Coming In From The Cold being produced by Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield no less. Jones’s powerful voice and songwriting are in a similar mode to Bradfield’s. Best heard on Into The Fray, his stage craft belied his 21 years.
Compared to his pop-up show at Stockton on the Forest Village Hall this time last year, Mason was far less chatty between songs, looking intent on sharing new material from Brothers And Sisters (due March 2023). With keyboardist Darren Morris providing a fuller sound, this was business rather than pleasure.
In the evening’s afterglow, the only question that really matters is, will Brothers And Sisters be worth the wait? The answer, on the basis of this cracking show, is a resounding ‘yes’; the new tunes were unmistakably Mason, full of interest, bite and tunes you want to hear again. Daring, defiant and iconoclastic, very much in the image of their creator.
Witness his new single, No More, now receiving buckets of airplay on BBC6 Music and providing the punchy title for his tour that stops off at The Crescent, York, tomorrow night (15/12/2022).
“The song’s about a country that has had its Band Aid ripped off to expose a pustule of Government hatred,” says the former Beta Band frontman. “But I feel immigration has brought a massive amount of joy to my life and my country, the whole country, Britain.”
No More, a plea to end to division and find common ground, is the first taster for Brothers And Sisters, Steve’s first album since 2019’s About The Light, recorded and ready for release in March 2023.
Why give the album that title? “Well, number one it’s the last song on the album. All the songs were written in lockdown, but with this one, I was thinking about Ghost Town by The Specials, with that line, ‘All the clubs have been closed down’, and I remember feeling it’s all finished,” says Steve.
“But now, if you were to accelerate forwards 40-odd years to 2022, you’d kill to go back to 1981, which is pretty crazy, in terms of personal freedoms, thinking about how many clubs there were, how you could still have a social life relatively cheaply, even if you were on the dole.
“Now, we just keep taking it and taking it, whatever’s thrown at us, but what I don’t get about this country is: at what point do we say ‘Enough is enough. No more’.”
A decade ago, on his album Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time, Steve had made the point that “we don’t do anything until the problem knocks on the door”. “Well, now it’s knocking on everyone’s door. It used to exclude the middle classes but not anymore,” he says.
“The time is right for change, probably an alternative to democracy and capitalism, when I don’t think we can say we live in a democracy anymore. Now that Boris Johnson can just lie in parliament, that’s not democracy. It’s fake, not real, when politicians are not accountable.”
That said, Steve does not consider Brothers And Sisters to be a political album. “The thing is, I did my political concept album a few years ago. I set out my stall then, and I don’t feel I have to hit people over the head with my songs when I need to remember that music is entertainment,” he says.
“I want people to put my album on after they’ve had a s**t day, so I’ve toned it [the politics] right back down. What the listener brings to the lyrics, how they fit into their life, that matters, because it has to be at least 50 per cent what the listener thinks.
“I want it to be a beautiful record, a positive record. It’s not negative at all. It’s about us finding some peace in the eye of the storm and hopefully finding some clarity when everything’s been deliberately clouded. You have to take a few steps to turn everything off.”
The last time Steve ventured into North Yorkshire, on December 14 last year, he could be found seated alone by a lamp, amid twinkling fairy lights and a Christmas tree, performing at Stockton on the Forest Village Hall.
“This time last year I was playing a lot of village halls, just me on my own,” he recalls, ahead of rolling out Beta Band and solo material with keyboardist Darren Morris by his side at The Crescent tomorrow. “I’ve really gone all out this time!
“Darren’s been playing with me for about seven years and he was on the About The Light album. This is a very stripped-out version of what I usually take out on the road, but for this album that I’ve just finished, I’m gonna change from a traditional band format.
“You can now reliably run backing tracks with drums and bass on there and then have people like gospel singers with you. But it’s been really difficult because of two years of no gigs and then a lead-in time of a year for vinyl pressings, so you potentially run into the problem of not touring for another year, but touring this way, with Darren, allows me financially to get to the point of releasing the album.”
Steve wrote Brothers And Sisters at the height of the lockdowns, looking for “some form of spirituality, as we were all were in the pandemic, but not tied to any one religion because people prefer freedom in their spirituality”.
“We must find things that we have in common when we have a government that wants to divide us – and that’s why I want them to fail miserably,” he says. “It’s important to love your fellow man and fellow woman and be aware that the information we’re fed is not always correct.”
Steve talks of striving to be an artist again, having become “somewhat reactionary” on About The Light. “I was just lucky that I realised that at some point I was going to make a record that I didn’t like, my fans didn’t like, or the radio didn’t like,” he says.
“There are elements of that record that I liked, but certainly I was dipping my toe into waters that I wouldn’t want to get any wetter.
“I’d just got married, had a three-month-old daughter, and I was feeling those adult thoughts for the first time, thinking about having to support my family through my art.
“What I’ve now managed to do is decompartmentalise my home life from my working life. I owe it to myself, to anyone who ever bought a record, to everyone who calls themselves an artist, when it’s such a precious position to be in, to be strong and take risks.”
To do so, he must swim against the authoiritarian tide. “For some reason, artists in this country are made to feel like second-class citizens who have to struggle to achieve anything, but opposition to the arts is the sign of a weak government up to no good,” he says.
Now 47, Steve’s career since 1996 has taken in folktronica experimentalists The Beta Band, King Biscuit Time, Black Affair with Jimmy Edgar and four solo albums since 2010 with the fifth upcoming. Along the way, debts led him to work on a building site and he has had struggles with depression too, but marriage and fatherhood, song-writing and performing are his life force now.
“What I would say is that, at the moment, I’m thinking a lot more about the live experience for people and how that will translate into something that’s exciting, energetic and uplifting,” he says.
“I’ve always been a very slow learner, so it takes me a long time to work things out, but on this record, I’ve tried to stretch myself vocally, much more than I’ve ever done before, singing a song in a way that’s more difficult, that requires more effort, when in the past my vocals were quiet.
“Doing something you’ve not done before, going somewhere new in a song, I just feel that the new tracks, when performed live, are head and shoulders above anything I’ve done before – and the audience reaction has been beautiful to see.”
Steve Mason, No More Tour, at The Crescent, York, tomorrow (15/12/2022), supported by Cobain Jones, at 7.30pm . Box office: thecrescentyork.com.
THIS seemingly incongruous venue turned out to be a smart choice. “I have no idea where I am,” Mason joked.
Yet this North Yorkshire village hall clearly put the Scotsman at ease. The former chief of the Beta Band has been enjoying a long solo revival since Boys Outside was released in 2010. His last album, 2019’s About The Light, was a wonderfully accessible collection of pop rock songs, while 2013’s Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time fulfilled all The Beta Band’s unspent promise.
Seated alone by a lamp, amid twinkling fairy lights and a Christmas tree to the side in this beautifully maintained hall, Mason would be an unlikely choice for a Christmas party. It turns out that while his songs can be downbeat and deal with serious themes, he is great company, full of stories and funny lines. He also commands your attention on stage.
Hopefully support act Wolf Solent (Yor- based Danny Trew Barton) was taking notes, as he was the opposite. He’s in good company – think Nick Drake’s disastrous tour of working men’s clubs.
Solent’s material feels steeped in lo-fi bands such as Acetone and Sparklehorse, which is a tough act to take to a live audience, but in the mix there were songs of quiet beauty.
Even his most ardent admirers might admit that Mason’s songs tend to sound alike, but he has an unerring knack of finding a way to bring both depth and melody. A new number, accompanied by stomping and clapping, was a prime example – with a timely message about needing light.
In lockdown, Mason has become, in his words and at least partly tongue in cheek, a rampant capitalist – and he was looking fetching in one of his sweatshirts. This side of him must sit uneasily with the part that “won’t follow fools”, which was a biting line in another new composition.
His faithful cover of Roger Waters’ Mother (from The Wall) felt like a natural choice, better than his expected finale of Dry The Rain, which never quite took off. The Beta Band’s signature song works better with a band, as evidenced from his Crescent show in 2019 or his star turn on the Deer Shed Festival main stage at Baldersby Park, Topcliffe, that same year.
At his best, Mason is a bona-fide member of music’s business class and he certainly lit up a pitch-black December night.