As is my habit when I visited Bearly’s House of Blues & Ribs the other night I descended down into proprietor Mimi Iatrou’s subterranean office, to hear my old friend tell some stories about the raffish characters who have, from time to time, entered his Barrington Street establishment.
A little later, when my brother and I climbed the stairs into the bar, we heard a sound that snapped and wailed, that seemed to fill our heads with notes that thrummed and licks that could make a person suspect that a whole ensemble was up on the small stage at the front of the room.
Except this was nineish on a Tuesday night. A single man—thin as a nail, sporting a bat-wing moustache and a tight-fitting toque—sat low on a chair, onstage.
We were there because it was mid-week in January and sometimes, in the middle of the Canadian winter, a little movement is necessary to keep the shack wackiness at bay.
But also because a long time ago I read an interview with the Nashville great Roy Clark in which he said if you have a chance to witness greatness, whether it is the best clog dancer or the world’s most accomplished Zeusaphone player, well you had better go have a look.
Garrett Mason is only 36, but legends already surround the man Halifax Magazine called the “guitar legend you’ve never heard of”.
That, for instance, he turned own the opportunity to open for a big American blues legend because he couldn’t bring his own handpicked band.
That he sometimes heads to clubs in big places like New York gets up on stage during jam sessions and wows the local legends.
And, conversely, that he gets asked all the time to travel and play for those who have heard of his prowess but just prefers to stay close to his Halifax home.
All of which would sound like so much hooey—like the story about the old uncle who could have played for the Maple Leafs except he didn’t want to leave the family dry-cleaning business—except, if you happen to be at Bearly’s on a Tuesday night, Mason will, with little fan-fare, take his seat and put fingers to guitar strings.
Then the stories, apocryphal or not, have the ring of fact.
Writing about music—as everyone from Laurie Anderson and Clara Schumann to Frank Zappa and Theolonius Monk is credited with saying—is like dancing about architecture.
So, I’m not going to try and describe Mason’s virtuosity on the guitar, because I simply don’t have the words.
I will just say that we had been only minutes nestled by the bar when my brother, who listened to a lot of live music in his old home of Toronto, turned and yelled into my ear about how he once went into a baseball batting cage to try his luck against the mechanical hurler.
At 45 mph he could foul off some pitches. At 60 mph Phil DeMont couldn’t hit a thing. He remembers wondering at the time, what a 90 mile-per-hour fastball must look like.
“This,” my brother who plays a little guitar, said, gesturing with his head towards the stage,” is the 90 mile per hour fast-ball.”
At that point Mason had just finished a self-written tune called Just A Thought and was starting into a composition by Junior Kimbrough, one of those long-dead Mississippi Delta blues men he is drawn to.
“There is something so bare and out in the open about those old guys, the solo performers,” Mason said when I caught up with him by telephone a day later. “There is absolutely nothing for them to hide behind. All of their faults and all that’s good about them is right there on the table.”
He likes the gritty realness of the blues. Mason was drawn to the blues for another reason: not a lot of people actually like hearing music that has its roots in the hollers and cotton fields of the American South.
And that appeals to an artist whose talent is such that he first played in public—the base-driven theme for the television show Peter Gunn—at the behest of his legendary dad Dutch Mason at the age of seven or eight, and won a Juno for best Canadian blues recording with his first album, but doesn’t have a website and seems rather uncomfortable with the few videos of him performing that have been posted on YouTube.
“That is the way it should be,” Mason declared when I askd about his reticence to play the marketing game.
He says he would perform anywhere in the world if someone asked him, and the date made sense. But he doesn’t really try too hard for gigs.
“God knows that I make music. If he wants people to know this he will make it happen.”
There is a comfort, he tells me, to staying close to home. In driving around the Maritimes in his 1991 Volvo, with his own gear in the back, like some down-home travelling troubadour that John Lee Hooker—whose tune Crawling King Snake, he performed the other night—might write a song about.
In playing his regular gig at Bearly’s, as he has done for the past two years. There’s no cover charge there and the beers that night are cheap.
But this isn’t necessarily a drinking crowd. Good Rockin’ Dan, big Eric, the blonde-haired woman in the fur hat and coat who takes a solo turn on the dance floor, the Millenials about Mason’s age: they’re all there to hear someone who grew up as “my dad’s son”, an angry boy who sought out the heaviest heavy metal he could find until one day, at 12 or 13, he heard Lightning Hopkins on an old record and everything changed.
When I say that doesn’t explain the talent—or the way that it emerged seemingly fully-formed in this Celtic-tinged province—Mason says that his goal was always to have his own sound.
“I put the time in,” he explained.
It’s there to see and hear, down on Barrington Street, every Tuesday night, even when the snow flies.