AS HE COMES TO GRIPS WITH HIS FATHER’S LEGACY, GARRETT MASON HAS BECOME A TOP (AND LARGELY UNAPPRECIATED) BLUES TALENT
On a mild moonless Tuesday night, a man walks down Barrington Street. Something on the chalkboard outside a bar has caught his eye. He disappears through the heavy wooden doors.
Inside Bearly’s House of Blues, a few regulars lean on the bar. A crossword puzzle marked with coffee rings sits under a tray. The waitress taps her pen, a dishwasher hums. On stage in leather boots and a stevedore cap, nursing a mug of chamomile tea, is the guitar legend you’ve never heard of: Garrett Mason.
When he plugs in his bass, the first commanding note drones through a boxy 1968 Fender amp. Heads turn. The crack of pool cues stop and players lean over the rail, looking on from the second floor.
There is no cover charge. Oland is $4 a pint. The place is almost empty.
Karl Falkenham recorded Mason’s first record at CBC’s Studio H when the guitarist was only 18 years old. “He’s one of the biggest untold music stories in Canada,” he says.
“I haven’t seen anybody who’s better than him,” say producer and musician Charles Austin.
Older Nova Scotians recognize the name before they hear the music. Garrett’s father, Dutch Mason, was an institution in blues across the country. Known for his ability to turn a dusty bar into a rollicking kitchen party, Dutchie earned the label “The Prime Minister of the Blues” from the legendary B.B. King.
Falkenham is probably the only recording engineer to have done a record for both Masons. He was nearing the end of recording what would be Dutch’s final album when the musician suggested bringing in one more guitarist.
“Oh no,” Falkenham recalls, fearing that it was “one of those ‘my cousin can sing’ scenarios.” Falkenham agreed to let Dutch’s teenage son play a couple tracks. “When he got to the studio, I couldn’t fucking believe it.”
He ended up playing on every song.
Mason isn’t your typical 2018 musician. You won’t find him on Twitter or Facebook.
“He doesn’t even have a website, a phone number!” Falkenham laughs. “He’s an enigma.”
Garrett Mason teetered on a double-edged sword: he had his dad’s reputation to launch his career but it was hard to establish himself independently. He laughs recalling a show in Digby where the sign read “Dutch Mason’s son.”
But still, his father gave him his start. It was the first day of the new millennium; a New Year’s Day levee hosted by Dutchie at the Pond Classic Grill in Truro, his home base. At 17, the younger Mason was still hesitant to perform. He said he wasn’t good enough.
Dutchie wouldn’t have it. “You’re comin’ out no matter what!” he said. The place was packed. It was Garrett’s first taste of the thrill and freedom of performance.
It was also his first experience of being openly compared to his father, foreshadowing years of unwelcome commentary from strangers.
“Drunk people in bars say whatever the fuck they want,” Mason explains, drawing on a cigarette in his white station wagon on a rainy afternoon in Halifax. In a couple of hours he’s booked to perform in front of hundreds, opening for The Sheepdogs at the Cunard Centre.
“I don’t even know anything different,” Mason says, of being compared to his father.
And he’s heard it all: “You’re better than him.” “You’re not as good as your father.” Even “You’ll never be as good as your father.”
Musician and recording engineer Lukas Pearse describes Garrett’s sound as “stoic” blues. “It is steeped in the history and yet somehow something new,” he explains.
Often, this involves “multiple musical voices,” Pearse says, not only calling up a rich history, but always treading new ground.
Sometimes, Austin explains “he uses his index finger as a pick.” Evoking flamenco? That’s the thing. No one can quite pin down what makes Mason’s style idiosyncratic.
“I don’t know what the hell he’s doing” Austin says. ”It’s just something he came up with on his own….He’s competing with himself.”
“It’s difficult to reconcile the complexity of his lines with what his hands look like when they’re playing” Pearse puzzles. “It seems like he shouldn’t be able to be doing what he’s doing.”
And to think, this is the man who shied away when the legendary B.B. King asked to meet him. “What would I have to say to him?” Mason asks, a provincial guff escaping from him, not entirely masking regret. “I just didn’t want to be another guy bugging him.”
It’s only evening, but already dark inside the Cunard Centre next to the container pier on the Halifax waterfront, where hundreds of people are milling around, waiting in line at beer tents or moving up toward the stage.
“Hey man,” a guy slaps Mason on the shoulder. “We came to see you, not The Sheepdogs.”
His buddies chime in, take photos, and move on. The scene repeats itself a few times. Mason half smiles his way through each exchange. He’s friendly, but he isn’t trying to make the moment linger.
“Does he know?” a woman asks, just beyond Mason’s earshot. “Does he know how good he is? I don’t think he does.”
When the teenaged Mason joined his dad on the road, Dutch was already in rough shape, in a wheelchair, from years of arthritis and more years of hard drinking.
“It was basically a train wreck,” Garrett says.
They’d go from town to town in Ontario, playing with a new band in each one: sometimes friends of Dutch’s, sometimes strangers. It was Garrett’s job to get the players they’d just met familiar enough with the songs to play them in time for the show that night.
Some nights, by the second or third song, Dutch would be too drunk to play. The tradition of welcoming musicians on-stage to jam became an embarrassment. “They’d come up and they’d [have to] finish it.”
Dutchie told him: “This is the road, son. It’s not an easy way of life.”
On the night Mason turned down a chance to meet B.B. King there was more going on. It was at Montreal’s Place des Arts, during the city’s famous jazz festival. When King saw the younger Mason perform, he was impressed and asked to meet him.
But Garrett had other things on his mind. On tour, nights took on a shape of their own: play, take care of his Dad, then take care of the gear.
There were always people around backstage, offering drugs and booze. He was always keeping an eye on his father. “It was always a full-time thing,” Mason says. “My nerves were shot. Making sure he was safe, getting him back to the hotel.” All while “being half pissed off at him, because he was too drunk.”
To make matters worse, the night they’d played Place des Arts, they’d parked on the street and he was worried their vehicle would be towed.
“Thing is, when he was sober, he was the best guy in the world,” Mason pauses. “But as soon as he got one drink in him… his personality would change. And I hated that.”
Any time the subject of his dad and those rough years arise, the story ends on the same notes: resolve and reverence.
“He had his issues, and he couldn’t overcome them.” Mason says his father felt cornered. “And whenever he couldn’t see a way out, he took to the bottle. But I don’t blame him for that.
I love him. He knows that.”
Silence draws in. “It was what it was,” a half smile. “Toughened me up pretty good.”
But what about B.B. King?
“I probably should have met the guy,” he allows. “I probably should’ve said something.”
Some years later, Pearse was at an industry event for composers at the Atlantic Film Festival. The night was meant to be for networking. But when the music kicked up, “it was ruined” he jokes.
“That’s Garrett Mason,” Pearse recalls, narrowing his gaze at the stage, shaking his head, and chuckling, as the entire room fell silent for the length of his performance.
“Somehow,” Pearse remembers, “his virtuosity had increased with his casualness.”
It was supposed to be background music. But it captivated everyone.
In 2006, time caught up with Dutch Mason. Just two days before Christmas, the blues man died, suffering from bleeding esophageal ulcers, a decline Garrett ultimately credits to the bottle.
Mason knows what it’s like to feel helpless. He’d taken breaks from drinking and fell back into it after his father’s death. “I’ve been sober five years now.”
Despite Mason’s refusal to self-promote, he’s built a career. These days, life is clocked in kilometres, between his regular gigs (playing bars, festivals, parties, and Legions around the Maritimes).
Though his easy-come-easy-go stage presence might suggest otherwise; he’s a perfectionist. He’s recorded two full albums that he won’t release. “I just want to make sure they’re good enough,” he says.Bearly’s is filling up. Mason’s diehard regulars: the beekeeper, the health scientist, the biker, the metal singer, the lawyer, and the brewery manager. A guy leans over to his friend, pointing at the stage. “Just watch his fingers,” he instructs.
Mason switches instruments, his guitars lined up against the forest green wall behind him. His right hand, working the neck like a customizable drill is painted with ink that honours his father: “Dad” crested within a heart, below his thumb and index finger.
The scene in the bar is one you won’t find in any other in Halifax: not a single cell phone is out. Everyone is listening.
Mason is slowing it down now, leaving his technically dominating guitar work for a more standard piece. But always, with his own style, a persistent control, that works something like a sleight of hand.
“It ain’t no secret” he sings, “but it’s still a mystery.”