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John Mark Nelson hooked First Ave on I’m Not Afraid

John Mark Nelson in 2013

John Mark Nelson in 2013

On Friday night at First Avenue, John Mark Nelson played to a community. During his latest CD-release show, he made sure to thank several people from the stage. Several of those named, including supporters from church, family, and GNDWIRE Records, had come out to watch him play. What’s more, all three bands on the bill live in Minnesota, and during the encore, Nelson welcomed everyone back to perform Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” For once, the Mainroom’s first few rows felt friendly, not competitive; warm, not sweaty; cozy, not cramped.

Nelson’s music suits a genteel atmosphere. It’s quietly mesmerizing, full of harmony and mellow twists. I’m Not Afraid, his fourth album, came out the same day that he performed. The LP’s polished tunes add slick production to the great writing Nelson’s known for, and there’s a poppy cohesion that comes from having recorded the album in only a few live takes.

At First Ave, the songs from I’m Not Afraid enjoyed some musical breathing room. The title track went a little jazzy, while guitarist Steve Bosmans brought Hillsong-esque chill to “After All I’ve Done” and “Control.” “A Hundred Orchards” was longer than its album counterpart, enjoying extra guitar work and becoming more fun than the original. Also, I found “I’ll Give You More” to be a nice surprise. One of my favorite tracks on the album, it sounded bluesy live, and I’d love for Nelson to push it even further in that direction.

The band had fun on older tracks “The Moon and the Stars” and “Rain Comes Down,” bringing a mischievous country-western vibe to both songs. Having a stable band lineup has done Nelson good, as he told me last week. Drummer Nate Babbs, keyboardist/vocalist Kara Laudon, bassist Ben Kelly, and guitarist Steve Bosmans have been with him through the recording process, and they’ll continue to back him up live.

GNDWIRE Records is also a new factor in Nelson’s life (and in the scene in general). “I believe in them so much,” Nelson announced of the fledgling label. “And I know they believe in me.” Recently founded by Dave Simonett (Tramped by Turtles) and Mark Gehring (Periscope Artist Management), GNDWIRE released I’m Not Afraid as its pilot project.

As an artist and a person, Friday’s John Mark Nelson seemed confident yet humble, sensible yet impassioned. He encouraged Bosmans with a playful “C’mon, Steve!” and grinned while his band played. But he doesn’t think of himself as a natural-born performer, at least not according to a 2013 City Pages interview.

During “The Chain” in the encore, he encouraged members of Black Diet and We Are the Willows to take the lead. “Since we only have so many microphones,” he said, “I’m gonna get the heck out of the way.” But on his own, he is a capable vocalist, a clever guitarist, and an excellent writer. As Friday’s concert showed, he can also captivate an audience.

Notes on the openers: Before Nelson’s set, Black Diet showed the crowd a great time, bringing First Ave a unique, syncopated energy. Jonathan Tolliver yelped, and Mugsy crooned; while dancing, Tolliver jolted from side to side, and Mugsy slowly swayed. One of First Avenue’s Best New Bands of 2013, Black Diet now seems caught up in a local moment. Friday was a fun opportunity to ride the wave.

Emotionally, first opener We Are the Willows pulled everyone in while playing special songs; lead singer Peter Miller shared the inspiration for their album Picture (Portrait), which he wrote about his grandparents’ letters from WWII. Musically, I really wanted We Are the Willows to juxtapose Miller’s light, high voice with some darker musical territory, with meandering outros or spookier cello parts, perhaps. But overall, they were a pleasant lead-in for Black Diet and John Mark Nelson.

The crowd: Sweet and supportive.

Random notebook dump: Peter Miller nailed it with, “Tonight is an excellent night.”

Overheard in the crowd: Several fans cheered incessantly for Nelson’s guitarist. “Steeeve,” they cried, until Nelson gently called them out between songs. “Let’s just do it one more time and get it out of our system,” he said. He counted down, and the spotlight fell on an uncomfortable Bosmans; “Steve,” thundered all of First Avenue. Bosmans had to crack a smile.

Setlist:

I’m Not Afraid

After All I’ve Done

Holes in Our Skin

A Hundred Orchards

Boy

I’ll Give You More

The Moon and the Stars

Broken

Reminisce

Control

Rain Comes Down

Dream Last Night

Encore:

That’s What You Do

??

The Chain (Fleetwood Mac cover)