At 12:40 a.m. on a Thursday night in early February, the shadowy chamber of the 400 Bar resounds with the loudest audience sing-along the club has had in years. The song is "Joy," a plaintive post-breakup anthem that the Mason Jennings Band usually reserves for the finale of its weekly shows. The chorus ("Joy, honey, let me bring you/Joy, I want to bring you") isn't guitarist-vocalist Mason Jennings's greatest line, but his audience begs--make that demands--to sing it every time he takes the stage. In fact, Jennings scarcely needs to sing it himself anymore. And it's been like this every Thursday for the past four months.
After spending three years treading water in the Minneapolis rock pool, Jennings won attention at an opening gig for a Dave Pirner side project. Jennings, a 23-year-old singer-songwriter from Pittsburgh, had only recently hooked up with a compatible rhythm section--bassist Robert Skoro and drummer Chris Stock--when the newly christened Mason Jennings Band was booked to warm up for Pirner's O'Jeez at the 400 Bar last October. The O'Jeez canceled, but Pirner turned up anyway and offered to sit in with the default headliner. All 20 people in attendance that night raved about the performance afterward, and within weeks the trio won a Thursday night residency at the club. Attendance soared--there were 100 regulars by Thanksgiving and 200 by Valentine's Day--and as of this writing, Mason Jennings is a bona fide sensation.
Jennings would rather not be pegged a "folk sensation," however, even though he plays acoustic guitar exclusively, live and on record. "Do you like folk music?" Jennings inquires, leaning against the bar at the 400 a few hours before the band's show on February 25. "I think it's kind of wussyish. It's like a preset for writing music, and I can't write with presets. I play an acoustic guitar for its rhythmic qualities--the cadences--you know?"
Folk, in the hippie sense, is probably a limiting designation for Jennings, whose acoustic-based rock songs strive to incorporate an amalgam of influences including punk, rural blues, Appalachian balladry, hip hop, north Indian sarod music, and, recently, a splash of roots reggae. A wiry six-two and 140 pounds, with chiseled features and close-cropped hair, Jennings has the look of a straight-edge punk or a fasting monk. He comes across as a driven, intelligent, bell hooks-reading introvert who is interested in Buddhism (which he calls "a straightforward manual for how to lead a more peaceful life") and inspired by Rage Against the Machine. His lyrics, sung with a down-home drawl and a rapper's sense of meter, hit with a deceptive directness that has seduced a diverse crowd, from recovering indie rockers to baseball-cap-wearing guy-guys.
Many of these fans seem most entranced by Jennings's understated voice: When he pushes it from his gut, it's surprisingly weathered, as if fried by decades of abuse. "I'm one of the many people who have heard Mason's voice and pictured some 45- or 50-year-old guy sitting on the porch in the Mississippi delta," says bassist Skoro, as he prepares to board the stage for his pre-Mason acoustic act. "I've heard recordings of him when he was 18 or 19, and he sounds really old then. At 12 years old, the guy sounded like Don Henley."
Tonight's performance is the third-to-last in the band's extended engagement at the 400, which will end March 11. And, like all their shows in February, this one is packed by ten o'clock. At 10:15 Skoro heads into his first song, and Jennings and drummer Stock take refuge in the 400's dank basement to argue good-naturedly over tonight's set list. Soon the crowd noise swells above them and a sense of excitement mixed with anticipation becomes palpable. "I'm feeling nervous right now, but I get so relaxed when I'm up there onstage," Jennings says. "That's why people say to me, 'Mason, you have to be onstage for the rest of your life.'"
You don't have to talk to Mason Jennings long before he starts disclosing bizarre stories about himself, many of which suit his odd role as a premillennial post-folkie. Like how he spent a night in jail soon after moving to Minneapolis in 1995, and accrued $1,500 in legal fees fending off the bunk prostitution charge that got him there. Or how his wayward older half-brother, Tad, a one-time member of a real violence role-playing club, has been officially missing for 18 months. Or how Jennings's ex-girlfriend's brother was a member of Heaven's Gate.
Born in Honolulu and raised outside of Pittsburgh, Jennings has been singing his own songs for nearly his entire life, initially honing his skills with his younger brother Matt in various teenage punk bands. During these years, he also obsessively gathered a collection of Delta and country blues. "When I was 15, I bought a tape of Charlie Patton or Robert Johnson or somebody like that," he says, "and when I heard it, I said, 'There's no drums? What the hell's going on?' Then I'm like, 'Oh, he is playing drums--on his guitar. And everything's working like this humongous rhythm.'"
Jennings dropped out of school at 16 to focus on music--"I knew what I wanted to do," he explains--and educated himself by raiding the public library for novels by everyone from Tolstoy to Willa Cather. He drifted around the country for a couple of years, "played the washboard in some New Orleans street bands," and decided to settle in Minneapolis upon visiting his father, a local banking executive.
His first local band was a short-lived, bombastic rock group simply called Mason, featuring brother Matt and a hotshot session drummer. The band's management, which at the time was hard at work launching Kid Jonny Lang, apparently hoped to exploit the Jennings' prodigy appeal in a similar fashion. But Jennings grew dissatisfied with their contrivances and the band fell apart.
After the fallout, he spent another three years in obscurity, recording Mason Jennings--an eight-song concept CD based on his travels in California--and releasing it in 1998. The disc, on which he recorded all the parts, was ignored here for months and, according to Jennings, received "65 vicious rejection letters" from record labels large and minuscule. After months of revolving drummers (Jennings is something of a dictator when it comes to band politics), he settled on Skoro and Stock to carry out his musical ideal. Twenty-five shows later, Jennings is happy enough with his progress that he's no longer even seeking a record contract--at least not this millennium.
At 11 o'clock Jennings, Stock, and Skoro emerge from the 400 Bar's basement to stand before the packed room, and all past struggles are forgotten. Jennings is a relaxed yet animated performer, and the fans filling the first several rows of the audience seem to have some visceral connection to the stream of words coming out of his mouth. It soon becomes apparent that the songs on Mason Jennings are but a fraction of his best work. During the paranoid, apocalyptic "Godless" ("I'm not conquered/Even as the helicopters come for me") or the explosive "Ease Your Mind," Jennings lurches into a trademark maneuver: He turns to profile, raises a bony knee high off the floor, and projects a kick in Skoro's direction. Skoro plays off the bandleader, almost like a smaller version of Semisonic bassist John Munson.
A quick survey of the floor reveals appreciative--even glassy-eyed--female spectators as well as hearty, male-bonding types. During the sublime refrain of the Buddhism-inspired "Darkness Between the Fireflies"--"the past is beautiful like the darkness between the fireflies"--a distinctly female chorus emanates throughout the club, drowning out the lead singer. But the male voices, for the most part, hold out for "Joy." As the show closes, Matt Jennings, who quit music to work toward his doctorate in history at the University of Minnesota, joins his brother on vocals for one raucous number, "The Bike Song." Its complete, unabridged lyrics: "This is a song about ridin' bikes/Drunk as hell/Late at night." It's a brother thing, evidently.
Two days after the show, the band is already in the midst of preparing for its final pair of regular 400 Bar shows, and Jennings sits at a Kenwood deli reflecting upon a lifelong musical pursuit that's just beginning to reap dividends. The band is wisely quitting its 400 stint to avoid a rut and work on developing a regional following. It's a welcome step forward for a musician who often seems to tread the line between bemusement and existential confusion.
"It's really recent that I've been meeting people I like because of my music, and that's been exciting," he says. "But I'm definitely searching for something. I don't sleep, I've lost a ton of weight, don't eat very much. There are certain times that the music just cuts through, and I break through and see something. I don't know, I'm looking for some kind of truth, I guess. Trying to figure out why everybody's alive. I'm pretty obsessive, pretty kind of crazy."
And here, in this hunger for connection, lies the vague possibility that something could go horribly wrong: An industry suit gets his hands on Jennings. Contractual obligations force Jennings to shave his head and pretend to be a Hare Krishna. Jennings records a Dust Brothers-produced album complete with Beckian breakbeats and becomes a one-hit wonder sandwiched on the radio between Silverchair and Sugar Ray. Or maybe he doesn't. Maybe Mason Jennings would never let that happen.
"I get mail all the time now," he says, "and a lot of the questions people ask me are like, 'There's this one Mason, this folk Mason, and then there's this hardcore Mason on the posters. Which is the real Mason?' And it's cool that you don't know there isn't one. You can't package that."
The Mason Jennings Band plays its last weekly show at the 400 Bar Thursday with special guests; (612) 339-2903.