Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Mason Jennings rocks Minneapolis, Middleton

It’s a cold Saturday night at Middleton’s Club Tavern in late September. Mason Jennings Band is in the middle of performing their song “Godless,” a fictional anthem about murder in the name of love. Bassist Robert Skoro lays down frenetic chaos behind Jennings’ driving acoustic guitar. The huge crowd gathers around the stage, chanting along with Mason as he sings, “k-k-killed a man and now I’m on the run/ godless burning underneath the sun.”

The energy in the bar rises to a dizzying fervency as Jennings and the audience snarl “Rat-a-tat-tat” over and over, louder and louder. And then, just as the music climaxes to the point of hysteria, Jennings steps back from the microphone, throws back his head and screams. It’s a piercing, primal howl wrought with a tortured angst that is completely pure and real. The impact jars the audience into a moment of stunned silence. This isn’t just a song and these aren’t just words. The guy means what he says.

Fast forward to last Friday in Minneapolis. Mason Jennings, who has been labeled as “the voice of our generation” by the Minneapolis press, walks quietly into the 400 Bar carrying two acoustic guitars. Despite his unbridled stage passion, Jennings is quite soft spoken in person. When asked how he feels about the moniker assigned to him by critics, he smiles and says, “it’s flattering for sure; I would love to get listened to.”

When this 26-year-old singer/songwriter walks onstage and starts playing, it’s impossible not to listen. His unique music sounds like folk, pop, rock, blues and soul mixed up in a blender and served shaken, not stirred.

Audiences seem to like what they hear. It’s four in the afternoon and already a small crowd has gathered by the door of the bar, begging for tickets to that night’s sold-out show.

Mason Jennings was born in Pittsburgh. He taught himself to play drums, guitar and piano when he was very young. At 16 he dropped out of high school to pursue music full time.

In 1993, he moved out to Minneapolis with his bank teller father to revel in the more prosperous Twin Cities scene. In 1998, Jennings released a self-titled debut album that he recorded in his living room, playing all of the instruments himself. The album is an eight-song journey that often sounds like a confession sung in rhapsodic poetry. The album has the intimacy of a live coffee house performance, while still maintaining a textured intensity. There’s the undeniably hooky “Butterfly,” which takes the guitar-as-rhythm-instrument idea in a whole new direction. “California” so effectively captures the sound of the ocean, it’s like holding a seashell up to your ear. The song is a naked and sad account of saying goodbye to a departing lover, “I’m gonna miss you/ like I miss the ocean when I go to sleep/ Man it’s gonna break my heart.”

Another powerful moment on the disc comes in the form of the song “Nothing.” It attempts to explain the meaning of silence and all that lies behind it. “Please know what I mean when I say nothing.”

It feels as if Jennings just sat down with you to sing about his triumphs and travails over power chords and transient riffs. The record executives didn’t get it. Mason sent out the disc and received “65 vicious rejection letters.”

Robert Skoro studied piano as a child and taught himself guitar. He originally met Jennings when they were both teenagers and recording high school rock band albums at the same studio. “His stuff really stuck with me,” Skoro said.

Years later, in 1998, after hearing Mason’s self-titled debut, Skoro taught himself bass and called Jennings. They started jamming, formed Mason Jennings Band and have played together ever since.

Jennings, Skoro and then-drummer Chris Stock started a permanent stint at the 400 Bar. At first, attendance was low, but after a few months fans were lining up to get into the sold-out shows. Minnesota music fans heard something the record executives didn’t. Jennings has sold 10,000 copies of his debut album and counting — out of the back of his van.

Now, three years later, Mason Jennings Band is back at the 400 Bar and once again they’ve packed the place. “This is funny,” Mason says looking around, “it’s like coming back to my house.”

Hundreds of fans show up that night and squeeze together into the smoky, dimly lit bar to witness Jennings’ homecoming. They come from all ages and backgrounds. Some have driven from far away while others live just down the street. But they’re all here for the same binding reason: to check out the man the The New York Times just called the “new Dave Matthews.”

Tom Kluis works in Minneapolis and tries to see every show in the Twin Cities area. “His lyrics are amazing,” Kluis says. “He’s just a man in his 20s, but spirits take over him when he performs.”

Scott Sceirbeck is a teacher who has driven down from Duluth, Minn., for the show. “He’s an incredible songwriter and a great storyteller. I love the uniqueness of his vocals.”

The band recently hired drummer Ian Mussington. Originally from outside London, Mussington was forced to take up drumming years ago when he fired the stickman of a band he was managing. Fortunately, the Brit had to fill the position himself and found that he loved it. He has been playing in British bands for years and, in addition to Mason Jennings Band, Mussington also plays drums for alt rock stalwarts Soul Asylum.

Mason Jennings comes on stage in jeans and a sleeveless black T-shirt. He looks like a rebel with a cause with his blackbird tattooed on his right shoulder (a replica of the art adorning the disc of his second self-released album, Birds Flying Away). It also serves as a symbol of adversity overcome.

Overwhelming stress gave Jennings a bad case of mononucleosis that forced him to be bedridden for the first half of 2000. During this time, he read veraciously and listened obsessively to music like John Coltrane.

In the song “The Mountain” Jennings sings, “I was waken from a day to daydream/ There was a bird trapped in my mind/ I tried to open up and let it out/ But there was no use in trying.”

But, eventually the birds flew away, Jennings got better and the band recorded Birds Flying Away.

Mason Jennings is never content to stay fixated on one musical genre, sound or style. His music is more like a highway traversing an immeasurably diverse landscape of moods. He culls from influences such as Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Johnny Cash and mixes in his own unique touch. Birds Flying Away is in many ways a darker and more barbed album than the debut disc. There are several songs about the civil rights movement, including “Black Panther” and the beautiful and affectionate ode “Dr. King.” There is a razor-sharp criticism of American business ethics in “United States Global Empire.” Backed by acoustic reggae music in a minor key, Jennings sings “The empire controls the media/ Media controls the world/ Media is the empire’s mouth/ Capitalist propaganda coming out.”

Then there are the love songs. Sparse, dreamlike melodies that capture the full depth and breadth of romance, this is the kind of love that poets through the ages have struggled to capture in sonnets. Mason Jennings closes his eyes, cradles his guitar and sings these words, instantly transforming into the chivalric ideal. He is a courting knight in blue jeans. Several girls in the front row stand looking up at Jennings in rapture while clasping their hands and silently mouthing along while he sings “All the while I’m dreaming of the ballad for my one true love/ Searching for the perfect way/ To say I love you sweetheart/ this is my dream come true.”

In an interview in 1998 Jennings proclaimed that he wanted to write the perfect love song. Before the 400 Bar show last Friday he mused, “I haven’t written the perfect one yet, but I’m getting closer. I’ll never get there, I’ll just keep getting closer and closer.” The girls in the front row may disagree.

Mason Jennings Band knows how to work a crowd. Almost all of their songs encourage singing along. Some, such as “Bullet,” encourage screaming along. This song can only be described by creating a new sub-genre of music seemingly along the lines of “folk hop.” Because it’s not featured on any album thus far, you must attend shows to actualize it. Those who go to shows know it well and scream along with Mason as he flows, “This is a bullet from a gun called what the f**k/ If I were standing in your shoes I’d throw my hands straight up.”

Skoro and Jennings often banter back and forth wittily between songs. Every now and then Jennings will calmly retune his guitar and tell a story about his childhood, or what inspired a certain song.

At one point during the 400 Bar show Jennings senses a slight drop in the audience’s energy. In the middle of a solo he grabs an empty beer bottle from the hand of someone in the front row and used it as slide to rock out with on the guitar. The crowd explodes.

Mason Jennings Band is releasing a new album in March. “It’s more of a warm record with a lot of piano. I’m happier now and healthier.” Mason has already tried out a few of the new songs at shows, and they are quickly becoming crowd favorites.

The busy band is kicking off a several-month East Coast tour with Jack Johnson. “Jack and I met at a college gig. There were a hundred people out in a field and I said ‘I love your music’ and he said ‘I love your music.'”

Jennings recently visited Johnson in California to piece the tour together and partake in a bit of surfing. At the 400 Bar they each rip through their own sets, then meet onstage for an encore to play some songs together.
Nearly impossible to categorize, Mason Jennings is indeed one of the strongest musical voices of our generation. With two albums out, one on the way and a gigantic wealth of material that is only performed live, Jennings is also one of the more prolific artists in contemporary music. The band has been gaining popularity and generating buzz with the imperious force of talent and willpower. There’s no doubt: Mason Jennings Band is in the midst of exploding onto the contemporary music scene like a great big, sparkly firecracker. If you listen carefully through all the cheering you’ll hear Mason sitting quietly with his guitar, working on the perfect love song.

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