Mason Jennings woos the Orpheum Theater
Orpheum Theater, October 18
By Dan Sinykin
Last time I saw Mason Jennings, he played an unplugged set in a dining hall in northern Minnesota for families with toddlers. So it took me a few songs to accustom to the Orpheum’s grandiosity, the balconies and chandeliers, the communal unconscious of a crowd. Once I eased up, the crooner hooked me with his swaying calm. He wrapped me into his story songs, sang about love without making me queasy, and even made the esoteric accessible. Who else could get a theater full of women in heels screaming over James Joyce?
Looking like he stepped out from the bucolic cover of Dylan’s New Morning, Mason stood on the sparse stage under soft lights, silhouetted before towering black curtains. The Orpheum’s lush acoustics filled the room, allowing even a cheeseball ditty like “Something About Your Love” to tingle my spine. I welled up during “Jackson Square” despite the hoots of a few tactless wingnuts while Mason evoked a lover’s suicide. After a strong version of “Soldier Boy,” he told the audience that he wrote that song at the White House. He’d been on a tour and came to a room that supposedly showed what had been happening that week. Pictures showed dozens of puppies dressed up for Valentine’s Day with President Bush. Mason looked out the window and saw a couple guards with machine guns and thought that wasn’t all that happened that week. That story set up the show’s unquestionable highlight, a riveting performance of “Killer’s Creek” in which, at the climax, Mason hit some pedal that quaked the Orpheum while he cried out not to be left injured and for dead.
He played most the show with the support of a tight trio that included opening act Zach Gill on the keys. Toward the end they played one of Zach’s songs, “Don’t Touch My Stuff,” that worked as a jesting and playful interlude.
That’s not to say it was all great. A few of Mason’s newer songs eschew poetic subtlety for plainspoken preaching or prophecy. The bouncy vigor of his unitarian universalist anthem “I Love You and Buddha Too” was unintentionally kitsch and comic. “How Deep Is That River,” despite its gentle tune and pleasant imagery, is too theologically bizarre to fully enjoy. And Mason’s one brand new song, “Black,” was all doom and gloom about the global warming apocalypse.
As in his studio albums, Mason was at his best when culling nuanced moods of love or death. He inhabited his songs and instead of reaching out to the audience, invited us in with his sincere presence. The effect defused standard crowd mentality. When a gaggle up front attempted to stand and dance they ended still and dumbfounded. Despite the grand venue, Mason molded a show as intimate as any for those willing to enter his world.
I just hope his world remains that of the poet evoking the darkness between the fireflies, and not the prophet of yuppie spiritualism.