What is it that you look for in a night of live music from one of your favorite artists? A few months into a rambling year-long tour of America, Mason Jennings rolled through town last week, playing his first gig in the Santa Barbara area in a couple years. I was happy about this, very happy. A master of thoughtful lyrics and catchy, occasionally rocking folk story-styled melodies, Jennings has long been a dude I make a point to see live, and, well, I don’t think I’m alone in my thoughts around these parts. In fact, Saturday night’s show at SOhO Restauant & Music Club, despite being the back bookend to a booze-soaked and rain-riddled St. Patrick’s Day, was a sold-out affair.
The crowd was glad to be there and, after a few school teacher-esque announcements from management encouraging people to “be respectful” and not talk due to the acoustic nature of the show, Jennings took the stage. All business, he went straight into “Lemon Grove Avenue” and then started “Living in the Moment” quickly thereafter. The rushed tempo slowed momentarily for Jennings to quietly address his adoring audience. “Sorry it took me so long to come back,” he explained of his two-year hiatus from playing the South Coast. He then promptly picked up his tempo again and got back to getting finished with the show as fast as possible.
Make no mistake, the music was great; Jennings ripped through old hits like “Be Here Now” and “Jackson Square” (in my opinion, the best song of the night) and sat at the piano for “Sorry Signs On Cash Machines” and a few lesser-known tracks off his new album, Minnesota. However, for essentially the entire show, it was pretty clear the artist’s outward enthusiasm for playing, or lack thereof, was impressively dwarfed by the audience’s clear and constant satisfaction with listening. Even his “encore,” which was only really made obvious by a momentary dip into the shadows of stage right, was done more automatically than awesomely. Jennings shouted out “What next?” to the audience, asking for advice on his playlist as he fast forwarded through the night’s final three songs (“Adrian,” “Darkness Between the Fireflies,” and “Fighter Girl,” for those counting).
He wrapped up and retired to his merchandise table just a click or two more than an hour after he started. The crowd was happy enough but lingered awkwardly as the house lights came up. The spell was broken, the show was over, and it had all happened too fast. Hustling out into the soon-to-expire St. Patrick’s Day night, I felt uninspired and caught myself wondering, was it even a good show?