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The real deal

Review by Doug Gallant 

In 2003 I traveled to Halifax to see Dutch Mason play.

I’d seen him play many times, had several of his records and felt he knew the blues better than almost anyone I had ever heard.

So I was shocked when he came on stage in a wheelchair.

He could no longer play guitar, couldn’t even hold a microphone. Chronic arthritis had taken a heavy toll on the man B.B. King once called the Prime Minister of the Blues.

But when they placed a microphone between his knees and he began to sing, everything else faded away. The voice was still there, powered by Dutch’s lifelong commitment to honour the blues and those who played it before him.

He died just a few years later.

But this summer at the Charlottetown Festival the iconic Nova Scotia bluesman lives again in On the Road with Dutch Mason, a bold, brassy, ballsy and at times bawdy new musical that makes you want to stand up and cheer for John Connolly, who proved he had the right stuff to play Dutch, and for the actors who played their asses off as his band.

And that is exactly how a packed house responded on opening night last Saturday at The Mack.

Written by Wade Lynch, On the Road with Dutch Mason paints a bigger than life portrait of a bigger than life man who lived hard, loved hard, played hard and on occasion fell hard.

Based on a book with the same title by David Bedford and Harvey Sawler, the show is built around Bedford’s experience as Mason’s harmonica player on a hectic three-week road trip. That trip would take them from Legion halls and legendary blues bars to one of Toronto’s most venerable concert halls.

Bedford, a university professor and amateur harmonica player who idolized Mason, was recruited after Mason’s regular harmonica player was sidelined by illness.

During the course of the tour Mason and the boys in the band school Bedford on the blues, on life on the road as a working musician, on the finer points of drinking and driving and on the importance of being there for each other.

Through stories told by the boys in the band, by Bedford, by the women in his life and by Mason himself, everything is laid bare here.

You gain insights into Mason’s childhood, the development of his love for the blues, his rocky relationships with women, his excessive use of alcohol and his struggle to keep it real when his health began to impact his ability to play the music he loved.

This is a story with meat on its bones, wrapped around roughly two dozen classic blues songs that Mason regularly played, songs like "Got My Mojo Working," "Dust My Broom," "Who Do You Love" and "Ain’t Nobody’s Business."

To put this out there and to make it credible required a tremendous effort from writer Wade Lynch, director Mary Francis Moore, music director Lisa MacDougall and the rest of the creative team.

And it all would have been for nothing if they had not found the right man to play Mason.

But they did. 

John Connolly’s performance brought the Dutch Mason I loved roaring back.

The voice, the vocal mannerisms, the way he moved, the attitude, it was all there.

And like Mason, when he played the blues you felt it was real.

And the band behind him sealed the deal.

Cameron MacDuffee, as Bedford, plays some wicked harmonica. Everybody in the band, which included Greg Gale, Trevor Grant, Ed Murphy and Brendan Wall, all carried their weight and then some.

And when Hailey Gillis, who played all the female roles, was called on she delivered too.

This show has serious chops. It’s one to see more than once.

—On stage at The Mack in Charlottetown to September 22, 2018. 

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