The audience seems less like an audience than a congregation. There are many smiling faces, an enormous range of ages, fathers and daughters, couples arm in arm, modest outfits, lots of swaying back and forth, and seemingly not a single drunk person.
Mason Jennings isn’t a rock n’ roller. His songs are mellow, his lyrics uplifting. But who’s ever heard of a concert with zero catcalling and not a single whiff of marijuana smoke? The audience sings along, but quietly. They bob their heads. There are signs of moderate foot-tapping. Occasionally they’ll uncross their arms to clap, and then re-cross.
The Jennings fans reveal their capacity for excitement early into the show when an earthquake rumbles through the Fillmore, turning legs to jelly and inciting a cacophony of nervous chatter. The opening band plays on, and the audience quickly returns to looking mildly interested and picking at their cuticles. Overall, they’re about as energetic as Jennings himself.
Jennings shares the stage with just one other performer, a charming musician named Jake Hansen. They rotate instruments, alternating between drum, bass, keyboard, harpsichord, and cucumber-shaped maraca. Jennings is the singer and supposedly the star of the show, but I feel far more compelled to watch his counterpart, whose lanky body’s spastic beat-keeping is both fascinating and endearing.
The duo’s musicianship is great—the groove is tight and danceable, the guitar-playing is intricate, but the vocals don’t measure up to the instrumentals. This is partly because Jenning’s stage presence is muted and his voice falls just a little flat. It’s also because his lyrics are moronic.
“Sweetheart, this is my dream come true/ And god bless the babies,” Jennings croons. I scan the crowd for signs of nausea, but everyone else seems unaffected. In fact, they look happy. Maybe they don’t speak English.
Jennings’ style is reminiscent of Jack Johnson, a long-time friend and touring partner. However, a few of his songs include a notably-un-Johnson like kind of spoken-word that sounds straight out of a School House Rock recording. After this thought comes to me, I believe the comparison is affirmed when he starts the next song with a wide-eyed exclamation, “Goodness me!”
Mercifully, this is actually the beginning of a comedic song about a cheating girlfriend. This knowledge provides some relief, but Jennings’ sense of irony ultimately isn’t strong enough to stamp out the overall feeling that he’s an overgrown camp counselor, busting out his guitar to accompany the s’mores.
Similar to a camp counselor, Jennings is a likeable guy. In between songs he’s smiley and sincere as he talks about his wife and kids. I feel guilty as I obsessively check my watch, not wanting to offend this guy who clearly means so well. I’m mentally figuring how many more songs he’ll play before I can leave when Jennings breaks into a cover of the Ramones.
This changes everything. As Jennings and Hansen wail through “I Wanna Be Sedated, the duo takes on a new life. Whether it’s just better songwriting or renewed energy on stage, there is now real dancing and audible vocals from the audience. I’m no longer sure what time it is.
After his foray into punk rock, Jennings calls the Pines, his opening band, to the stage. Jennings and Hansen accompany the Iowa-bred trio through one of their beautifully ethereal folk songs that had enchanted he through their set. The six men on the stage are clearly happy to be there playing with each other, and the feeling is infectious.
Jennings closes out the show with a Woodie Guthrie song, only returning to his own catalog for the encore, which he plays with an excitement and earnestness that had been completely absent in the first three quarters of his set.
Despite the show’s turnaround, I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for the ticket, but most of the concert-goers around me feel differently. “That was great! Didn’t you think that was great!?” one man yells excitedly at what looks like his teenage daughter. I’m not Jennings’ target audience.
I’ll never understand the appeal of soft rock, much like I’ll never really understand the appeal of going to church or being a member of any congregation.
In truth, the excitement of the earthquake that shook the stage during the opener’s set was the highlight of my night.