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LENNIE MACPHERSON: In the wake of the blues

The cast of “On the Road with Dutch Mason” poses on the Mackenzie Theatre stage. The show runs until Sept. 22. LOUISE VESSEY/SPECIAL TO THE GUARDIAN
The cast of “On the Road with Dutch Mason” poses on the Mackenzie Theatre stage. The show runs until Sept. 22. LOUISE VESSEY/SPECIAL TO THE GUARDIAN - Contributed

Back in the day, the name Dutch Mason meant little to me. It was just another name floating around in the local ether, blended together with the names of fighters from junior high schools, or go-to plumbers, or the people who write too many letters to the editor. I couldn't place a face. Perhaps if I really strained, I could guess the infamy. But I surely knew nothing about him. Later, when I actively sought out new musical influence, I suppose I grouped all post-1960s electric blues as the boring call of middle-aged white men.

If you too missed Mason's decades-long reign of canadian blues ministerialship, you can get a taste of it this summer. On opening night, a dry-ice haze gave The Mack some throwback atmosphere. Two bartenders hustled to serve a selection of beverages and snacks that also hasn't changed since the 90s. I ripped open a bag of Lay's, ready for a lesson in hard livin'.

When we meet a gingerly moving Dutch, he has an entire career of touring behind him. His most recent band lineup is about to hit the road again and Dave Bedford, an amateur harmonica player and local prof, is hoping to tag along for a stint.

Adapted from the book of the same name by Bedford and Harvey Sawler, Wade Lynch has crafted a very fine script. It's pared-down and no fuss, with dialogue that's funny and snappy. Stitching together all these anecdotes could've easily become a meandering jukebox thing, but instead there is a compelling sincerity, a considered balance of darkness and warmth.

Though there is a certain grit or rawness to the man's life that doesn't fully penetrate the veneer of theatre, as many of the feats and misdeeds are told to us rather than shown, the show is unquestionably engaging throughout at Director Mary Francis Moore's steady hand.

MacDuffee serves as narrator, largely based on the real-life compiler and last minute replacement. Glimpses into Mason's past are for Bedford's benefit, as the other bandmates help him catch up to speed. MacDuffee's presence is affable and earnest. And he's got chops on that mouth harp.

John Connolly embodies the spirit of the title character. He doesn't overdo it. He just casually settles in with an impish smile. We see the wear of the journey, not a caricature of it. Connolly's thoughtful performance serves the complexity of a flawed human well. A slight nod of approval or a glint briefly startled out of his eyes become important moments. Even at his lowest point, Connolly's take is so very fatalistically on-brand for Mason.

While the personalities of his bandmates are not particularly distinct from one another, their admiration for Mason and a relationship built on ribbing and shenanigans feels natural. They're tight players too.

The rotation of women all played by one actor is not a bug of a tone-deaf script, but rather a sadly appropriate feature of Mason's life. Hailey Gillis, however, does an excellent job showing that each of these women was a real person. And I'll be damned if she doesn't deliver some of the most deeply moving vocals you'll hear this summer.
The structure of the play, a road trip, is certainly not new. Dutch Mason's music was not new. An artist whose art takes precedence over domestic responsibilities is not new. What does seem novel, is that these sorts of bios usually come from Los Angeles or New York or, well, just somewhere else. Not Truro.
But even in his own time, Dutch Mason was blithely out of step with trends. His charms harkened back to the origin of the blues. He simply had no choice but to play 'em. And our privilege was to witness a man take the stage each night and either confront his demons or shake their hand.


Need to know:
On the Road with Dutch Mason plays select dates at The Mack until Sept. 22, 8 p.m.
Tickets at www.confederationcentre.com or call the box office at 1-800-565-0278
Thoughts? email us at letters@theguardian.pe.ca. Please include your name and a daytime telephone number you can be reached

Lennie is a Charlottetown-based performer and writer. Reach him at Lennie.MacPherson@theguardian.pe.ca

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