Whether we admit it or not, most of us attend concerts to hear songs we’re familiar with. We listen for months, or years, and when the artist finally comes to our town, we want to hear the songs we know. Granted, we also expect the band to road test some new material, but any veteran performer knows that, even with a crowd full of his most faithful followers, part of his responsibility is to cater to that audience.
Though he exists just under the commercial radar, singer/songwriter Mason Jennings is a veteran performer in the truest sense. With only a guitar and a harmonica, Jennings held the sold-out seven hundred at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on February 12 in the palm of his hand. Like the honest simplicity of his songs, Jennings knew what the audience wanted, and he delivered.
Following opener Chad Vangaalen, a quirky multi-instrumental singer/songwriter who replicated songs from his 2005 debut album, Infiniheart, with startling precision and emotion, Jennings began with “1997” and “California Part II” from his 1998 self-titled debut, the latter of which had the crowd nearly shouting the background vocals: “I’m gonna’ stay away from L.A./ I’m staying far away from there.” “Ballad for My One True Love” (off 2000’s Birds Flying Away) was played to a near silent, awed crowd, and though he stuck to what he does best, Jennings did manage to turn “Duluth” (off the same album) from a foot-stomping spiritual into a hypnotic, slow acoustic tune, losing nothing in the transfer.
About a quarter of the way through, Jennings introduced his first new song, “Jackson Square,” from Boneclouds, to be released May 2 via Epic. With characteristic modesty, Jennings warned it was a stripped-down version, different from the one on the album. What followed, not only with “Jackson Square” but new songs “Be Here Now” and “Jesus Are You Real,” was a testament to his loyal fan-base as well as the solid craft of his tunes; though few had heard the new songs, they were immediately accepted, even hummed along with, and sounded as if they’d been in his set-list for years.
The new songs were appreciated, but the real joy – the real connection – of seeing this solo acoustic show came during encore “Butterfly,” when, in lieu of a backbeat, Jennings urged the crowd to clap along in assistance. He smiled the whole way through, and, for the duration of the song, the performer on stage was as happy as the fans looking on.
Mason Jennings Web site (audio/video)