Mason Jennings at UMDUMD provided its students with excellent entertainment this Wednesday night. Rumor has it they paid the hefty sum of $10,000 to recruit Mr. Jennings to venture up I-35 to Duluth. Since they paid the fee, the students did not; admission was free for UMD students. Regardless of who bore the cost of the performance, Mason Jennings gave everyone their money's worth.
The fact that I am not a UMD student was only a minor roadblock. The U of M and UMD have exactly the same student IDs. I guess since they get the benefit of seeing "University of Minnesota" on their diplomas (there is no visible difference between their diplomas and ours), the least we U of M students could get in return is free admission to some of their events. I brought my student ID, and I knew I would be getting in. Ms. Metropolis was a different story. She is not a student at the U of M, so she did not have an ID. We made the two hour trip knowing that we may have been turning immediately around and heading back to Minneapolis, but for Mason Jennings, it is worth the risk. Ms. Metropolis and I have ventured all the way to Iowa City to see Mason before, which is no small task, given how much I hate the Hawkeyes.
Fortunately for us, both our siblings go to UMD. The doors opened at 8:45, and my brother had been holding us a spot since 5:30; apparently, he was third in line. Ms. Metropolis' sister acquired a UMD ID for my fiance that represented her pretty well. Ms. Metropolis was undoubtedly scared that she would be found out, but as the doors opened, her fake ID only afforded a passing glance, followed by a hand stamp. We were in, and we were in the front row. Kirby Ballroom, an interesting venue if not captivating, filled up quickly. The folding chairs filled up quickly, as did the standing room in the back. I'm sure they had to close doors eventually and turn some students away, which I do not feel bad about; they should've showed up earlier. Mason Jennings always sells out in Duluth.
The opening act was a solo accousitc artist named Jeff Johnson. His guitar style was much different than Mason. His is more similar to Dave Matthews or John Mayer, who use the repitition of a riff rather than a series of chords. Johnson had some catching riffs, especially the second song he played. Johnson also utilized a pedal that allowed him to record a riff and play it back on repeat. Once it was repeating, he could play over it, allowing him to solo and giving him a more full sound. I could see he was nervous, but he found his groove in the second tune. Jeff would've done himself a favor by not being so talkative. He lost the crowd he was on the verge of capturing when he went on several storytelling escapades. Overall, he plays guitar very well and is very creative on the accoustic. However, he lacked a little lyrically, and his melodies were only sporadically effective. Either way, it was a great effort considering I don't think he had played out in a while.
After much delay, Mason finally took the stage. It was a solo accoustic show, the energy was going to be different than what I am used to. I have seen Mason at least 10 times before, and each time it has been with a full band. The energy he provides in those shows through his accoustic guitar is phenominal. This show, however, was going to be more quiet and intimate. With a few exceptions, the crowd was great; no chit chat during songs or clapping at inappropriate times. During "Adrian," I was astounded at how quiet the crowd was. Mason said several times how much he appreciated the attentiveness of the audience, and he was genuine.
The set included a little bit from every album. Songs I recall from his eponymous first album included "Nothing," "California (Part I)," and California (Part II)." From "Birds Flying Away," I think he only played "Duluth" (which was inevitable). From "Simple Life," "Simple Life," "Summer Dress," and "Amphetamine Girl." From "Century Spring," "Sorry Signs on Cash Machines" and "Forgiveness" on piano, and "Bullet" and "Adrian" on acoustic. Finally, from "Use Your Voice," "Crown" and "Ballad for Paul and Shiela" (the Wellstones).
I really didn't think any of these performances stood out. It was his new material that blew me away. He has a new album coming out with his new label this spring, and he showcased a little of it Wednesday night. First, he played a song he wrote about New Orleans. He said he wrote it pre-Katrina, but he obviously loves the City, having apparently lived there for a time. Much of his new songs have a storytelling aspect to them, more so than his older songs. I also noticed a a very Dylanesque-rhyme scheme and rhythm, reminding me a little of "Tangled up in Blue." Obviously, he's been compared to Dylan in the past, but I've not seen it until I heard some of this new stuff. A second new tune, called something like "Without Love" had a very catching chorus and some moving lyrics about the birth of a child, presumably his own.
In his encore, he first covered Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska." It's the second time I've heard him cover a Springsteen tune from the album "Nebraska." I heard him do "Atlantic City" (amazing) a few years back at the Norshor Theater in Duluth. The crowd, however, was a little confused, as the song is about a killing spree. I don't think they knew what to think. The last song was new, and was--without a doubt--one of the most moving songs I've ever heard. It basically dealt with his inner struggles around God and religion and faith. It was genuine and heartfelt, and I need to hear it again pretty soon.
Overall, Mason was great. Not the best Mason Jennings concert I've seen, but certainly unique. I also enjoyed the close-knit feel. Check him out at www.masonjennings.com. He is as good as they get. I can't wait for the new album with his new label. Special thanks to my bro and future sister in law for allowing us to get into the show. Really appreciate it.
If you like Mason, or you were there, let me know what you think.