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Mason Jennings at First Avenue, 12/6/13

Mason Jennings at First Avenue, 12/6/13
Photo by Youa Vang

Mason Jennings
With Pieta Brown
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Friday, December 6, 2013

Thanksgiving came a week late for Minneapolis musician Mason Jennings. The singer celebrated at First Ave. to a crowded room with a new album, interspersing his gratitude to every one that came out to see him on the first of two nights between songs and charmingly funny stories.



It's hard to pinpoint one reason why a Mason Jennings show is so entertaining. He's good-looking, but not to the point of distraction. He doesn't have the best dance moves, actually, he doesn't have any at all. His music pulls the listener in with its storytelling, some of them about love, but all of them about life and connecting with people around him.

When Mason writes a love song, he makes it simple and endearing. And that's where the night began with "Dreamin' of the Day That You'll Be Mine." He leaned heavily on new album Always Been, and reveled in the new songs like the upbeat "Lonely Street" and "Rainboots." Mason said that on the new album he focused more on vocals, because that was an area he always felt he was lacking in, but he could have fooled us when he belted out "Butterfly" and "Crown." All emotion was felt and interpreted via vigorous foot tapping.

While most of Mason's songs are hopeful, his newest single "Wilderness" is a haunting tale of lost love and yearning. From the deep opening guitar line to Jennings' touching vocals, the song brought out another side of the singer that is often untapped. While not directly about heartbreak, "The Field" was written when the songwriter tried come up with something after he visited some military bases. He had difficulty voicing his feelings, until one day the sentiments came to him and opened the the floodgate of reflection. To continue on this sedate tone, he quickly followed with "Instrument," a song dedicated to the late Nelson Mandela, and telling of ways he aspires to be like the leader.

As great as he is at telling a story through song, Mason captivated with his tales from the road. While at a show one evening, a fan gave him a bald eagle feather, not telling Jennings until the last minute, leading to Jennings almost landing in trouble because of the plume when he crossed the Canada/United States border. No worries, though. The feather was thrown over the fence at a rest stop. This led to a tale about his song "Lemon Grove Avenue," written after he saw a sign for the charmingly named street in San Diego. When he played it at a show in the city, no one clapped, leading into Mason questioning a fan about the song. They replied, "Man, have you ever been there? That street sucks." 

As an ode to his home, he named his 2011 album Minnesota, fitting because his band was made up of Minnesota musicians with Jake Hanson on guitar, Rob Skoro on bass, and Barbara Jean on violin and backing vocals. Pieta Brown and Bo Ramsey, Mason's producer on Always Been, were invited onstage for "Patti and Robert," Mason's song for Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, and the revival "Witness." It was a treat to capture Ramsey's guitar breakdown on "Witness," but what was even more of a treat was watching Jake Hanson getting lost in the music and having his own party from his corner of the stage.
 
An encore opened with Mason asking what the crowd wanted to hear -- something of a disaster since the audience was somewhat inebriated at this point, but he conceded with "Your New Man" and brought out the rock star with the bluesy "Ain't No Friend of Mine." Was First Avenue lucky enough to get a second encore? It sure was. As a bookend to the night, Jennings finished off with the last song off the last album "Just Try." As his wife watched from behind stage, Jennings serenaded the room and warmed hearts before they headed off into the cold December evening.

Critic's bias: The first time I saw Mason play was with Jack Johnson at River's Edge many years ago; I have been a fan since. While he is great on record, the whole Mason Jennings experience is best felt live.

The crowd: A cold Minnesota bunch -- many of them friends of Jennings.

Overheard in the crowd: Not much due to the drunk girl shouting in my ear. I have not been front row at a show in a long time, and I forget how a show experience can change dramatically because of where you stand in the venue.

Random notebook dump: For anyone interested in the songwriting process/stories behind Always Been, Mason did a commentary on the album via Spotify.

Setlist

Dreamin' of the Day That You'll Be Mine
Lonely Street
Ulysses
Dakota
Which Way Your Heart Will Go
Be Here Now
Butterfly
Living in the Moment
Clutch
Raindrops on the Kitchen Floor
Wilderness
Rainboots
Lemon Grove Avenue
The Field
Instrument
Crown
Jackson Square
Patti and Robert
Witness

Encore
Your New Man
Sorry Signs on Cash Machines
Ain't No Friend of Mine

Second Encore
Just Try

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