I got to the Coffee Hag super early Monday night, about 5:30 or so just to make sure I was in the lovely Jenn Melby's way as she and her staff were clearing out tables to prepare for the Mason Jennings concert at 7:30. The Hag is an intimate space for a concert, and with 90 or so people expected, I wanted to make sure I got a seat up front to take pictures.
The concert was part of The Current radio station's Road Trip series to outstate cities that carry The Current's signal. DJ Jill Riley was the host of Monday's concert at the Hag. The two of us were on a journalism speaking panel together at MSU last year, and I interviewed her for the preview story on the concert that I ran in the Currents section last week. So she was kind enough to put me down as her "plus one" for the show. (The tickets were free, but they were gone in four minutes, so I was too late to get into the show without pulling a media string or two.)
What I didn't anticipate was that Jennings would be at the Hag just as early as I was to meet people and do sound check. So I sat at my little table for two against the brick wall with my laptop, doing some homework and quietly observing. Several employees and friends of the Hag gave Jennings demos of their bands, which he graciously accepted. Several people approached for photos, which he didn't at all seem to mind. Several people asked him questions and exchanged stories about the Twin Cities area music scene, where Jennings got his start in coffee shops a decade ago.
Being a fly on the wall in a situation like that is priceless to any arts journalist. We get the opportunity to speak with musicians on the phone to ask a few questions before a local show, which at times can yield insight into actual, true character. At times. But rarely do we get to see them in any kind of natural way, guard down, no pretense.
From his music you'd expect Jennings to be kind, laid back, insightful. And from what I could tell, he absolutely is. A true Minnesotan: NICE (even though he joined us here in the great Midwest as a young adult).
Jenn closed the Hag around 6:30 and cleared everyone out except a handful of employees mingling in the back. I got to stay. And sitting 10 feet from the stage, Jennings sat in front of the piano and started to play. For a few minutes, I got a private concert. And it was one of those moments where there was nowhere else I'd rather be.
When Jenn turned the lights down and let the audience in, a few dozen people sat on the floor in front of the stage. Jill introduced Jennings to the crowd, and he started into the piano-based "Bitter Heart," and it still felt like he was playing just for me. Chatting with a woman near my table a while later, she said the same thing. Intimate, melodic and peaceful. Music you can listen to all day, as another concert-goer put it.
After every couple of songs Jennings played, Jill would ask him a few questions, including the sound of the new record, "Minnesota," which came out today. He talked about appreciating the contrast between his last record, which was louder and electric, and the quieter piano-driven music on this new one. He talked about how the actor, Jason Schwartzman, also a musician (Coconut Records), played instruments on the record.
He talked about how the concert at the Hag was his first in a coffee shop in 10 years, so it was a nice return to his roots. Both of them talked about stopping at Jim's Apple Barn on the way down to Mankato, Jennings for Zestar apples, a recent discovery of his, and Jill for candy. And he told a funny story about having to sing the "National Anthem" at a Twins game, where there was a one-second delay between the words he was singing and the echo in the stadium, making delivery extremely difficult. At one point he started rocking back and forth like a frightened child, sure he was massacring the song. To his surprise, his slower delivery (due to extreme concentration) came off as intentional and moving.
But the most interesting Q&A came from the audience.
Q: Who does your hair?
A: The wind.
Q: What is the most musical food?
A: Chocolate chip cookies, because trumpets go off in his head when he sees them and he can't resist.
Q: Which one of his songs should Danny and Ashley in the audience play at their wedding?
A: He wouldn't go there. Such a personal decision should be made by the couple, but he was touched they would choose his music at all.
Q: Will he bless Jen and Justin's unborn child?
(A pregnant couple in the audience.)
A: Yes, with a chord he played on the piano.
Q: Dogs or cats?
A: Dogs, but more recently. He suddenly felt the urge as an adult to hug a dog. His family now has a retriever named Rosie.
Q: Will you play at the Coffee Hag again?
A: "I hope so. This place is great."
For you Jennings fans who plan to catch him on tour, here's the setlist:
1. Bitter Heart "Minnesota"
2. Raindrops on a Kitchen Floor "Minnesota"
3. Rudy "Minnesota"
4. Hearts Stop Beating "Minnesota"
5. Clutch "Minnesota"
6. No Relief "Minnesota"
7. Ballad for my One True Love "Birds Flying Away"
8. Ulysses "Use Your Voice"