Dressed in a drab t-shirt and blue jeans, Mason Jennings let his warm baritone and subtle guitar playing color November 5th’s concert at the Belly-Up. “Adrien,” off the singer’s third LP Century Spring, began his performance. The song’s solemn yet affirming mood set the tone for the remainder of the night: understated instrumentation and wistful lyrics of nature, God, and life that managed to sound distinctive.
A cover of Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend” bisected the set. The fact that the tune was recorded before most Belly Up patrons were born was self-evident; it was the only song no one sang along to. Nonetheless it provided one of the most poignant moments of the night. The bucolic imagery, and plaintive delivery of Young’s tune morphed seamlessly with the minimalist aesthetic of Jenning’s performance.
Young’s impulse to “buy a pick-up/ take it down to LA” also fit in with a surprising theme of the night: California. Jennings’ (a Minnesotan) paeans to our state included “California” and “Big Sur,” luminous songs that drifted off into imagery-rich, pantheistic introspection.
The concert was not an unadulterated triumph however. Jennings was totally solo: just him, his guitar, and the occasional harmonica. Although the asceticism of the night sometimes led to greater intimacy Jennings could have used backing musicians. I saw him in Santa Cruz last June, complete with a bassist and keyboardist. The additional musicians fleshed out his sparse sound, compelling the crowd to head-bob and even mosh-pit for one brief moment.
At Solana Beach the crowd was certainly pleased with the performance but not enraptured. The full spectrum of emotions displayed by the Santa Cruz audience was limited to one on Monday night: quiet admiration.
Still, the show was certainly a success. Stylistically Jennings does nothing remarkable, but his slurry, conversational vocals and unaffected poetry provide a refreshing antidote to the frat-folk of bores like Jack Johnson.
Michael McDermott opened for Jennings. His throaty, extremely emotive vocals reminded me of the anthemic roots-rock of early Bruce Springsteen, circa 1974.