The El Rey Theatre on Wilshire in the Miracle Mile district carries the feel of an old jazz era ballroom with tables against the parallel walls and a bar opposite the stage. The velvet curtain opened on Mason Jennings holding an autoharp as if it were a sacrificial lamb.
The intimately diverse crowd went ecstatic in a respectable way (save for the buzzed-cut over-21 gentleman who yelled, “I would go gay for you!” in the wordless parts of the opening of “Rudy”).
Jennings certainly did attract a varied group of passionate, warm fans: women in their forties, recently divorced, wearing heels when they really shouldn’t have; couples swaying together, cupped into each other, boy kissing girl’s ears; grim, flannelled, bearded young men in packs sipping beer, breaths reeking of cigarettes and gum.
This must say something about Mason Jennings, whose musical catalog invites him to shift from aforementioned autoharp to piano to acoustic guitar to electric and finally to drums. He didn’t merely group his different types of songs together — keyboard and keyboard, acoustic and acoustic — but instead charmingly bounced around according to tone and energy of the set list, as if he were making a poem.
He managed to cover Woody Guthrie — in the encore, again on the autoharp, which his wife inherited from her grandmother — and The Ramones “I Wanna Be Sedated” was embedded within his heavy Blood of Man track “Aint No Friend of Mine” without bending focus from his own energy. He even played a Hawaiian lullaby his mother used to sing to him.
The opening band, The Pines, who Jennings repeatedly touted during the show as “one of [his] favorite bands in the world,” set a darkly rustic tone with their Iowan blues/folk roots — plenty of slide guitar, harmonies and airy bandit vocals that brought to mind images of brown leaves in a brown river, serving as the perfect complement to Jennings’ own folk twang.
Jennings plays and sings as if discovering himself during the show. Lyrics he wrote years ago — like And if this darkness came from light/ then light can come from darkness I guess from an old meditation called “Drinking As Religion” — still seem to cut deep into some emotional wound.
His set lasted about an hour and a half, but he fit what must have been 25 songs into the show, spanning from his debut eponymous album to the recently released Minnesota. Each album spoke to a different theme: the folk album, the blood/electric album, the acoustic album, the album about home.
In a musical world where talented, progressive musicians prove themselves through drastically complicated and unbelievable arrangements in order to be separated from the pack, Jennings keeps it simple. He’s prolific — but calm about it all; mania seems to have dripped out of this man.
Toward the end of the show Jennings announced that afterward, if the audience gave him a little time, he would come to the merchandise stand to say hello. “It’d be great to meet everybody,” he said.
Almost 10 minutes after his last song, he joined The Pines by the T-shirt booth and let people approach him in a line, shaking hands, giving about a minute of earnest conversation about anything or everything.
He walked through the auditorium without any airs, like he’d merely been one of the crowd who happened to watch the show from onstage.
It’s almost like the best parts of the world of art were allowed in one place, one situation: a musician with a personal attachment to his audience (and vice versa), and an immense talent, who has the ability to set you at ease in conversation, who could just as easily act as if he’d never written anything you’d ever heard of, like he was just your best friend’s very nice and very spiritual older brother.