Steve Mason


Wow. Good evening from The Deaf Institute – the venue that laughs in the face of health and safety. The venue that scoffs at the idea of personal space. The venue that puts the ‘mmmm’ in intimate. Seriously, there’ll be no cat-swinging here tonight, so tightly jammed in are the 250-odd strong crowd. And in some venues, that’d be really annoying, but such is the Deaf Institute’s raffish charm, you kinda just shrug your shoulders and crack on.  Even the grimace on a mate’s face caused by a £12 bar bill for a couple of vodka and cokes doesn’t last as long as it might have done at some other venues (e.g., ones beginning with ‘A’, ending in ‘y’ with ‘cadem’ in the middle…).

Steve Mason’s first eponymous album, ‘Boys Outside’, was released to huge critical acclaim last summer, but, in keeping with the trend set by Mason’s alma mater, The Beta Band, sold about 9 copies. Common opinion has it that it’s up there with the best of his work, a lean collection of typically haunting and haunted melodies, sparing arrangements and a glistening production job by Richard X. Mason’s label, an offshoot of Domino Records, has vowed to keep pushing the record, and whether that’s a label’s surefooted belief in its quality or just an attempt to wring every last pound out of it, anything that keeps Steve Mason in the public eye has to be a good thing.

And that’s what brings him to Manchester tonight. Taking the stage alone, he picks up his acoustic guitar and floats off into a solo rendition of The Beta Band’s ‘Simple’, from their 2004 swansong ‘Heroes to Zeroes’ (presumably because of its apt opening lyrics about Tuesday nights), that voice swooping and soaring as it ever did. Joined by his band, Mason ditches the guitar and warns the crowd that if they want to take photos, they’ll have to go up onto the balcony. A momentary but perceptible frisson ripples across the crowd until Mason admits the reason; that way, his double chin won’t be visible.

And with that, he’s off into a set that takes in pretty much all of ‘Boys Outside’, with a few unpredictable selections from the back catalogue – no trip down memory lane this; anyone coming to hear a Beta Band best of will have left disappointed. ‘Lost & Found’ lollops and lopes, Mason cutting a slightly awkward figure minus his guitar, clutching microphone in one hand and shaker in the other. ‘Am I Just a Man’ follows suit, much of the audience mouthing along in hushed whispers (“You don’t have to be so quiet,” observes Mason afterwards, “It’s not a f**king library!”).

Steve Mason

‘Stress Position’ works its deceptively sparse and sinister skeleton into a percussive climax, Mason bashing away at a fluorescing tambourine, sub-bass notes socking you in the stomach. An apparently extended intro to ‘The Letter’ is aborted as Mason finally admits that he’s forgotten the words. One gentle reminder later and we’re into what could be the evening’s centrepiece, a sprawling epic that is made by the details – those seemingly innocuous piano arpeggios, some subtle but wrenching chord changes. Mason’s lyrics here are jaw-dropping in their account of a relationship breakdown, but god, the whole is a lovely, lovely thing.

Having peaked somewhat, the next few songs just pass by a little bit. ‘Falling’, ‘I Let Her Out’ and the album’s title track – top songs all – really only serve as a mid-set breather. Then Mason announces his next single (Mason: “I think. I’m not really the one to ask.”), ‘All Come Down’. Heavier than its recorded incarnation, with that hypnotic organ note running to the fore, Mason intones the mantra-like lyrics, barely stroking the strings of his guitar, away in a reverie. Gorgeous. The main set closes with the 2005 King Biscuit Time single ‘C I Am 15’, its insistent drumbeat winding up in a whirl of tom-tom drums and a rapturous roar.

Mason reappears alone again for an acoustic strum through ‘Dr Baker’ from the Beta Band’s 1997 ‘Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos’ EP. That it bears absolutely no resemblance to the record appears to matter not to the crowd, bar one dissenting voice (“Oh no, he’s doing Dr Baker like that again…”). He’s joined by the band one last time for a looping finale of ‘I Walk the Earth’ from King Biscuit Time’s ‘No Style’ album. And if the Deaf Institute doesn’t exactly allow for a sea of bobbing heads and smiling faces, well… there’s certainly a small lake of them. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said this, Manchester, but as ever, it’s been a f**king pleasure. Fight the power!” And with that, Steve Mason’s off. Now watch out people of The Deaf Institute. I’ve got elbows and I know how to use them…