After an unfortunately short but heartfelt set by Matador artist Jennifer O’Conner, Mason Jennings walked onto the small stage to play to Space’s large crowd. Summing up a Jennings fan is impossible. His fans are modest, and you probably know a lot of them but don’t realize it. His songs, while lacking any edge or genre-connected image, are simply good. He is common ground for fans of varying tastes. On his Web site there’s a picture of him with Garrison Keillor (who wrote A Prairie Home Companion), Jennings recently signed to Isaac Brock’s (Modest Mouse) Glacial Pace imprint. To label Jennings as MOR would be an injustice, but his live set proved he has something for everyone.
Space, an “alternative arts venue,” which usually displays works of art, was filled with both young and old — regularly a sign of an artist past his prime and a set that would be mostly greatest-hits fare. Jennings did away with that tradition by opening with his newest single, “Be Here Now,” and performed most of the songs off his most recent album, Boneclouds (released in May on Sony), reassuring his crowd that although now on his sixth album, he is still interested in being “new” rather than being a traveling jukebox of the songs that made him famous.
Surprisingly, for an artist who began as a sensitive singer/songwriter with a guitar and a four-track, Jennings was at his best with his well-polished yet more exuberant bandmates Chris Morrissey (bass), Peter Leggett (drums), and Bradford Swanson (piano). The attentive audience began to wander as Jennings was left alone to sing sublime versions of his slower songs such as “Which Way Your Heart Will Go.” It wasn’t that his solo songs were lacking, but when compared to the energy produced by his bandmates, his slow acoustic sidebars were for everyone what they were for the band: a break.
His recordings at times seem too polished or too clean, but his live performance returned the lo-fi rawness you’d hope a folk-like performer would carry with him. Jennings seldom spoke other than to introduce the band, and he never did smile, but it was clear that he was focused on the performance and on enjoying himself. His new songs, “Jackson Square” and “If You Need a Reason,” blended well with his old material, but favorites such as “Ballad for My One True Love” held a wide-eyed audience silent, and extended, looser versions for Use Your Voice’s “Crown” and his debut’s “Nothing” induced western-flavored sing-and-dance-alongs. Jennings’ modest songs allowed all in Space — NPR listeners and Moon and Antarctica devotees alike — to enjoy one another’s eclectic company.