Jessi Mason At Groove, Friday, January 5th, 2018, Reviewed
During an impeccable hour long performance at Groove in the Village last night, Jessi Mason proved the power of the version: she covered James Brown, Dusty Springfield, Bruce Springsteen, and Radiohead, and if you include her original song “Blue,” which doubles as a Joni Mitchell tribute, the musically distilled and protean young singer songwriter placed her own shimmering jewels on stage and allowed them to glitter amongst the finest songwriting.
It was an act of alchemy, “It’s A Man’s, Man’s World” shot full of funk hard bottom has been covered from women such as Cher and Etta James, a hard cast proto-misogynism that doubles back as a coming to terms with sexual roles, Jessi sinks deep into it (here’s to the keyboard player’s emphasize on the melody), like so much of her own songs there is sexual guilt by implication in the words. It fits in and illuminates as does “High And Dry” -a break up song for paranoias with a terrific sax break. They are slots fitting into a downbeat worldview sad songs about sad things saved from pessimism by melody. Hell, Jessi’s idea of a feelgood song is Springsteen’s “Reason To Believe”. The covers were tinted windows, allowing her own songs to dazzle you. She moved from jazz to Americana to funk to her wheelhouse, 70s singer-songwriter, while coming to terms with sexual politics in 2018.
Mason is one of the best new songwriters you will ever hear, if that wasn’t true why would I have made the pilgrimage to Groove last night in sub-arctic weather? I fell hard for Jessi after rock nyc writer Margaret Conlon Mullen forwarded me her song “Hollow” some three years ago, and everything I’ve heard in the interim, two EPs, the latest , Night Owl, released just yesterday, has been the best song I’ve ever heard. “This One’s On Me” made my top singles of 2017 (here), beating out the terrific Jessie Reyez, by two spots. I haven’t listened enough to Night Owl to make a firm decision, but it might be sufficient to mention that “This One’s On Me,” with its proto-Tapestry earth moves vibe, wasn’t the best performance of the evening.
In a glittering dress and a wide smile, she strapped on her guitar and lead her full blooded band, she opened with the first song on Night Owl, “I Really Don’t Know,” and the strongest sound is the thump of the drum that seems to reinforce her self-doubt, the band moves on its stomach, odd for pop Americana,which tends to move on its melody, especially when the melodies are this solid. Next, “Hollow,” a song I essentially worship, sounds better live, her voice is stronger and she takes it over the way Joni does on “All I Want” -it is a songwriterly move of empathy. Here is another name, one Jessi doesn’t conjure: Laura Marling. Jesse sounds like the 2013 Laura without the hip quotient, think of Laura’s “Where Do I Go” -that’s how good Jessi is. The third song of the set was “It’s A Man’s Man’s World” and there you have it: a new song, an old song, a cover, and Jessi had us. It was set list construction as masterclass, according to her bio “Jessi currently studies performance and songwriting in the Popular Music Program at University of Southern California Thornton School of Music.” They might teach that but what they can’t teach is how to actually pull it off.
Before you think this is going to be a lovefest, it isn’t. I mentioned Laura Marling before, when I first saw Laura she changed keys with every song and couldn’t afford a guitar tech so took to telling stories while she did it herself. Jessi went out of tune and her stage patter wasn’t where it needed to be. Some huge bands, Kings Of Leon for one, have no idea how to speak to an audience, but certainly for a singer songwriter of Jessi’s gifts we need more than the “2017 was a difficult year” used to introduce a cover. Either spit it out or swallow it -I saw Corinne Bailey Rae discussing her husband’s death by overdose at Mercury Lounge a coupla years back, it was tough but it was the job she chose and she did it. Groove was packed out and I am thankful I decided to buy a ticket online or I might not have gotten in, given the circumstances, and given the terrific performance, Jessi could have trusted us to follow more closely her thought patterns.
But how do you complain when the fourth song of the evening was a lively and gorgeous “Night Owl”? Mason did the unheard of, she performed an hour long set I wish was longer, I could have doubled up and still been happy. Two songs later she performed a song I didn’t recognize (“When The Train Comes Down”?) and it had a night bliss smooth jazz sexiness that kept the audience riveted. By the time the evening ended with “This One’s On Me” followed by “High And Dry,” no pop music lover wouldn’t be overwhelmed by admiration and pleasure at this gifted woman. Jessi claimed there were only family and friends and walks in at the show, she was wrong. There was also fans. And there will be a lot more fans in the years to come.