A tall, shadowy figure approached the darkened stage at The Belly Up Tavern last Wednesday, Nov. 13. The lights came on slowly, and cheers from a sold-out crowd of about 250 followed immediately. Mason Jennings stood evenly and confidently with his acoustic guitar snugly across his torso.
After the first song, Jennings played “The Light (Part 2)” off his 2004 album “Use Your Voice.” Like many of Jennings’s songs, his acoustic guitar complements and reinforces his voice like a spouse. In the song, he tells a story, asking questions and making requests which make the listener feel like they’re witnessing a heartfelt conversation.
Jennings played a few songs off his new album “Always Been,” released on Nov. 12. The first he played off the album was a pleasant song about the anticipation of love called “Dreaming.” A couple songs later, he played the love song “Rainboots,” which he said was the first time he’s played it live.
It was a seated show. The 25 foot stage had about 12 rows of chairs in front and was flanked with chairs and stools on both sides. There was less shifting and cell phone-checking in sitting than in standing. While the freedom to get as close as possible was sacrificed, a contentment and focus on the music alone, was fostered. Jennings was alone the entire show. He stood straight, knees barely bent. He had no ticks or nerves. He was as comfortable onstage as in his living room.
Some songs had a different feel live because there was no accompaniment from drums or electric guitar. It focused most of the attention on the lyrics. Sometimes the lack of accompaniment strengthened the power of the song, like in “Duluth,” other times it felt like there was something missing like in “Darkness Between the Fireflies.”
The core of the show was when he played “Which Way Your Heart Will Go,” with “Be Here Now” following after. Jennings said they were both written upon becoming a father and having his worldview change. “Be Here Now” builds on the first song, picking up the tempo; the quietness and uncertainty of “Which Way” yielded to a hopeful reflection on the perpetual sunrises and the newness and life they bring in “Be Here Now.”
After Jennings played these songs, he walked to the keys not far from his guitar. He played three songs from his 2011 album, named after his home state “Minnesota.” He played “Bitter Heart” — a song of beckoning, a bid for stubbornness to cease and restorative love to ensue. It has a gentle pain in it, as if his soft tone was the only means of stopping something destructive from happening, like calling a jumper away from the edge.
Jennings often turns his head while singing and when he turns in your direction, it feels like he’s making eye contact with you and no others. It makes you think you know him well even when you’ve never met him.
When Jennings came out for the encore, he played “Duluth,” a song he usually plays on drums. Instead of drums, he thumped his right thumb on the face of his guitar, in increments of about one second. The crowd started clapping along, matching the pace of his thumb. He didn’t play one note on his guitar, just sang the song, using the crowd as his instrument.
There’s a power to Jennings’s music that resides in the words. The crowd at the Belly Up Tavern perceived this power and was content to hear his stories, his character infusing them with meaning and beauty.