Mason Jennings doesn’t need any career advice from me, but if he did, I’d suggest he head to California—the state about which he’s so piquantly sung—and found a nice little religious cult. I’m sure he manages to make his mortgage payments with his successful career in music, but he could have his own compound if he did the cult thing. Many of his songs about abiding love could become religious anthems with just a little lyrical tweaking, and he’s already got the tambourines.
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Standing on stage at First Ave on Sunday night, playing to a worshipful sellout crowd, the Minnesotan Jennings seemed nonetheless to embody the spirit of the Golden State: hair swept back, slightly scruffy beard, short-sleeve button-down shirt, loafers sans socks, and an organic, almost beatific glow. For most of the show, he wore the relaxed expression of a man lying back on the couch and gently strumming a favorite old tune.
Hell, I’d join his cult, even though, truth be told, I’ve never really fallen in love with his music. I like his songs—particularly the laconic, gently sarcastic story-songs that are kin to those of Loudon Wainwright III and Warren Zevon—but I’ve never really been able to get over the persistent vocal tic in which Jennings rises to meet line-concluding notes, hitting them an octave or so higher than you’d expect. With another singer, in another style, that technique could add tension and ambiguity, but as applied to Jennings’s loping style, it just sounds goofy.
The large number of teenagers filling the floor (it was an all-ages show, with the boozing crowd marinating themselves like sardines on the club’s packed upper level) would have been surprising for some folksingers of Jennings’s vintage, but the appealing optimism of Jennings’s mien will always appeal to idealistic youth. Sunday night was my first experience seeing Jennings live, but Jennings vets—clearly the preponderance of the crowd—were largely delighted with the tight, varied set that reportedly rocked harder than one would normally expect from Jennings. My girlfriend, who’d seen Jennings three times previously, gave the show a rave review, and when I returned to my computer I saw that my Twitter feed was full of approving tweets from people whose opinions I respect (“I take back every doubtful thing I ever said about Mason Jennings,” “1,000 times better than last time I saw Mason“). The set list—which is posted along with Andrea Swensson’s review at City Pages—comprised a generous mix of new and old, and the crowd, hardly moving as they gazed up at Jennings’s curl-haloed visage, sang along to many of the songs.
I’m still not completely sold, but I definitely want to hear Jennings’s new album Blood of Man, described as an unusually dark effort and featuring Jennings’s opening number, the album’s title track. “As your legs begin to spread,” sings Jennings, “how I wish I was not dead.” Far from it: Jennings seems to be more alive than ever, and we’re lucky for it.