“So, who is Mason Jennings” was a question that rang through my ears as I walked through the city streets of downtown St. Paul. It was a Saturday evening, but this half of the Twin Cities has a curious way of being quiet and calm no matter the day and time. As I walked through the historic streets of downtown St. Paul, I kept trying to answer that question- who IS Mason Jennings? The inquiry rang louder as I approached the venue. The Fitzgerald Theater really fits the cliche for this historic part of town, too, being the oldest theater around as well as being beautifully designed – Victorian style? I’m no scholar, if you told me it was or was not I could not correct you. Regardless, with its signs glowing, cobblestone roads, and the surrounding snow- the view was nearly out of a holiday snow globe.
When I finally got inside the antique-esque and retro vibes grew on immensely. The red seats and carved wooden architecture really was a shell-shock in comparison to the likes of First Avenue and The Armory – my usual destinations. I grabbed a drink and found my seat eventually – and here another surprise arose. I am not used to formally assigned seating, nor am I used to sit-down shows in the first place, and all the while I am STILL wondering “ who IS Mason Jennings?” How does one write about him and his music, and/or Frankie Lee for that matter? My answers were impending. My confusion was high. The music started.
Frankie Lee came out with a cowboy hat on, patched jeans, and a soul for storytelling and music playing that resonated with us for a variety of reasons. Both Jennings and Lee have a major emphasis on lyrics in their music and beautiful stage presence. Lee told us back-stories behind his songs, and talked with us about his time spent in East St. Paul in a cheap apartment, with a motorcycle and a constant invasion of noise coming from construction in his neighborhood. A true native, he represented the state beautifully in his recounts of his time here.
What I remember most vividly about Frankie is how you could feel his heart in the chords he strummed, and during transitions or even mid-lyric he would pan out across the audience in such a captivating way that you felt like he was making eye contact with you. It was something I’ve never felt at a show before. Joining Lee and his jamming was a harmonica that he can play just as damn well as his guitar. Highlights of his performance beyond his anecdotes and individually powerful stage presence were songs such as “Downtown Lights” and “East Side Blues.” Check him out if you haven’t – Frankie is a local artist that I don’t plan on missing the next time he swings through the Cities.
The intermission came, and it was at this point in time that I realized I was (perhaps) one of the only people in my row that didn’t have a significant other with them – was this a prerequisite to attend? If so, my sad single-self must have missed the memo. On came the lights, and up went the couples around me to the bars – politely bustling and hustling around my beer-date and I. I rarely give insights into my writing process – but – it is at this time that I will share one of my first pieces of concert writing advice – always get two of whatever you want to drink to avoid rushes such as this! By the time they all returned, Mason was taking stage, and I had my second beer casually in hand and had not a line to wait for, unlike my romantic peers.
Mason came out alone for the first half of his show. He sat, dressed almost like a modern-day Johnny Cash in all black (and a gray coat? Not sure!). Sitting on a stool with guitar in hand, Jennings began things off on a fire-side, calm and collected note. This performance was not a rock show, nor did it consist much of anything you’d hear at a party – this was story time, and where we’d often find a book in one’s hands we find a guitar in the arms of Jennings as he took us on a ride of nostalgia and romance. Not all of Mason’s songs sound the same nor share the same meanings, but one thing is consistent and that is authenticity. No matter the track or vibe of the piece, it was almost as if Mason was narrating parts of the human experience for us with the pleasant support of music behind his voice. This was the first and potentially only show that I was hearing the words more than the music itself. Mason Jennings owns the title of “Musical Story-Teller.”
Whether it be a song about love or personal tribulations, all were pleasant and easy on the ears as well as our hearts, but things did pick up (a little bit, in terms of volume and energy) as Mason eventually was joined by his band and (for a short time) Frankie Lee, as well. The hardest thing to recount about Jenning’s performance is a single song – ironic, isn’t it? I can tell you all about him but the way his sound and words blended together made it hard for me to point a specific one out, and on top of that there was never a moment to disconnect long enough to take out my phone and make notes as I usually do at a standing show. The man in (mostly) all black shared an evening with us unlike anything else I’ve ever covered before, all the while sharing tidbits about his time in the state over the years and telling us stories about filming for TV shows and tracks for movies that never made it to the silver screen. Unique, to say the least.
So, who is Mason Jennings? Quite simply – Mason Jennings is a fantastic story-teller who plays the guitar as well as the piano, and shares company with a fantastic local-born artist named Frankie Lee. And, after this show, I encourage everyone to not only look up their music, but to also go and check for their tour dates the next time either artist comes to town. This was a night I will never forget.