Shaky Knees Fest preview: Mason Jennings

I used to go to a lot of Guster shows in my teens and early 20s—a lot of them. They may still be the band I’ve seen the most live. In those early days, the bill typically went: Dude-With-An-Acoustic-Guitar, Guster, followed by John Mayer (ah, the times when he was just a fresh-faced kid on the college campus circuit and not an über-creepy asshat).


So at one show when I was 19, D.W.A.A.G. was Mason Jennings.

He’d just signed to Isaac Brock’s label, Glacial Pace, and, with his slight beard and windswept curls, looked like a damn Patagonia model. A few friends began a round of pool; I ventured toward the stage. Jennings’s breezy, open-road guitar chords cradled a voice that was a little whiskey-stripped but Tennessee-warm. I am historically not a fan of sedate shows, but something about Jennings and his minimal accompaniment drew me in–his careful narratives provided intimacy in a mid-sized venue, urging me to get closer to hear.

Then The Look happened.

From the stage, Jennings’ eyes searched the audience and locked with mine in a world-stands-still Oscar-worthy moment. I looked to my left, to my right—I couldn’t believe it. He was singing directly to me. Like, every word that dipped and drawled–all the sinuousness of Bob Dylan’s croon without the nasalization–asking his woman (uh, me) to run away and explore the great U.S. of A. with him was a promise, and I configured my face as best I could to read “I hereby swear on this venue that is typically used for boxing tournaments that I will meet you at your van after the show and finish school later.”

After a friend mopped me off of the floor and I snapped back to reality, I watched as a dozen other young women around me, one by one, turned starry-eyed and flushed, nervously tugging at their blouses and unconsciously fixing their hair.

I concluded then and there that Mason Jennings is a complete and total fan-earning genius.

The gals rushed to the merch stand to purchase his CD after the show, hungry for the opportunity to chat him up (I was busy stumbling through some practiced line to Guster’s Ryan Miller about how his music was the “soundtrack to my life”–my cheeks are burning just recalling it).

The point is: Mason Jennings writes some gorgeous, kinda-poppy, country-tinged songs that dabble in the great American folk themes–wanderlust, politics, love and murder. It’s the feel of Jack Johnson without the god-awful, schmaltzy banana pancakes; the lyrics are a pleasure to pour over, the chord progressions perfect for soothingly fast open-window drives and porch brunches with mimosas (Simply Orange, not Sunny D). It might make you want to buy an old Chevy truck and smash your smartphone for good.

Singer-songwriters, take note. The lesson here is that a love-at-first-sight gaze to all the young folks in the house will rocket you to success.

Eh, knowing your way around a guitar neck and a good story probably helps too.

Eye-locking skills aside, Jennings certainly has been making a name for himself—he’s released 5 albums and a handful of EPs since I saw him and contributed two covers for the 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There—gee, is it hot in here?

Mason Jennings plays on Sunday, May 11, at 2:15pm at the Ponce De Leon Stage. I’ll be there with my eyes wide–I gotta see if, years into his success, he’s still giving The Look.