Sharing The Passenger Side With Webster Hall & Hugh Masterson

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I don’t often dwell on past accomplishments or significant periods of time in my life. Usually that takes the better part of years or severe emotional embarrassment to do, but luckily this living, breathing entity called music exists that tends to cut that time waiting on significance in half. Or more specifically, it cuts it down to the monster of a week I just finished experiencing.

You see, this aspiring writer may have started last Monday thinking about the occupational hazard of radio station jargon, but by Thursday and Friday he took it up a notch. Make that a notch that was smack dab in the midst of Manhattan, just down the road from Union Square and through the doors of Webster Hall to see the triple billing of The Lone Bellow, Anderson East, and Hugh Masterson.

And while I could certainly spare plenty of opinion about each individually (and a ton altogether), I’d like to take the biggest focus of the spotlight and shine it down on the heartrendingly sparse acoustic storytelling of Masterson.

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Going in to the shows at Webster Hall, I already knew enough about The Lone Bellow to stretch from here to several of our most common planetary structures. And when it came to Anderson East, the moment I first heard him sing “The Devil In Me” on a Daytrotter session was the moment I knew there were big things looming in his future. But Masterson came as the completely unknown wildcard as the first act on both nights, and what I came to witness as a result has left an unmistakable imprint upon me nearly a week later.

Armed with only an acoustic guitar (and later surrounding help from The Lone Bellow’s Brian Elmquist and  Anderson East Band), the Wisconsin-bred Masterson got up and just….sang with an essence of stinging honesty and conviction stretching from the backwoods of his hometown of Butternut all the way to the bright lights of NYC. Looking back on it later, I felt like Mark Ruffalo’s record executive character from Begin Again as he watches Keira Knightley’s musician Gretta sing for the first time.

She goes virtually unknown and unnoticed in a crowded bar as she strums away on a lone guitar, but he can’t keep his eyes off of her as he imagines her song blooming and the instruments (literally) sprouting to life around the talent he sees. It’s one of the more powerfully inspiring scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a music film, and as I watched Masterson’s set I could sense that same spark of potential burning from the rasp in his voice down to the path left by the tracings of his lone guitar lines.

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Up until now Masterson had been mostly known as the lead name in Hugh Bob and The Hustle, but with that band apparently in the rearview mirror it was refreshing to hear him not only play new songs, but present songs from the Hustle’s self-titled debut stripped right down to the nuts and bolts. Not that there’s anything wrong with the original record (it’s a strong slice of alt-country/rock), but the songs that were translated to Webster Hall benefitted greatly from a little less polish and a little more dirt under their metaphorical fingernails.

Tracks like “Passenger Side” and “Ashland County” carried a greater weight of poignancy without additional instrument arrangements, and made Masterson’s already eloquent songwriting stand out as strong as his vocals as they rang out into the depths of that concert hall. It was almost as though he was preparing to give everyone attending something as gloriously dingy and close to the soul as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (just soaked with a few more beers first).

It reminded me of seeing Butch Walker open for Ryan Adams at Carnegie Hall a year ago during two special nights of acoustic shows. Walker had primarily been known as a pop/rock-leaning musician and a skilled producer, but on that night I was hypnotized by his solo acoustic set of songs that would later become the Adams-produced tearjerker Afraid of Ghosts. It was fragile and more creaky than polished perhaps, but it was also cathartic and real and unafraid to risk anything in order to say everything.

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I got those same rush of emotions watching Hugh Masterson step out on that Webster Hall stage last week. And without even knowing a great deal of his work or music, I couldn’t help but be more and more proud of him for taking that risk. It takes strength to define yourself as one person outside of a band you’ve known a long time, and even more of it to open for two other groups in front of crowds that could very well be completely unaware of what you do and the art that you make.

Kudos to Masterson for owning every minute of it while simultaneously being one of the friendliest, most down to earth and humble individuals I’ve ever had the great pleasure of meeting. I came away with more meaningful anecdotes in a five minute conversation with him after the show than I have in any conversation I’ve had in a very long time.

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Now, if we could just get Hugh in touch with Ryan Adams to do some producing…

You can find Hugh Masterson on Facebook and Twitter, and you can buy his Hugh Bob and The Hustle LP on iTunes or Bandcamp (or listen to it over on Spotify). 

Credit for the first three (and by the far the best) photos in this piece are courtesy of Mara S. May she always be able to illustrate the best words I can sing from my mouth and out upon these digital pages.

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