Despite or maybe because of the fact that he’s been semi-reclusive over the past couple years, Mason Jennings played to a nearly full house at the Minnesota Zoo’s amphitheater on Saturday night. Love for the poetic acoustic strummer is still strong in his hometown, where he has only played one ticketed show over the past year and a half. A big reason for his scaled-back schedule is his disdain for the ever-changing music industry, which he described in a Star Tribune interview last December when he said, “I’m not sure I’m up for it.”
Falling on an unusually cool night for late June -- giving fans more reason than usual to wear flannel -- Jennings’ zoo set didn’t exactly suggest he’s hot on the idea of coming back to the performance ring on a more full-time basis yet. He matched the high-50s weather with a similarly chilly, sullen performance.
Not that he’s ever been a cut-up in concert, but Jennings didn’t talk much between songs and stuck to a decidedly downcast collection of tunes, including many off last year’s under-promoted, little-heard album “Wild Dark Metal.” Not helping matters, a gaggle of drunken yahoos in the crowd kept yelling about it being their friend Ricky’s birthday. The bros probably should have been ejected, but their antics did underline the contrast between the fun summer vibe of the Music at the Zoo concerts and the performance at hand.
With bassist Robert Skoro and drummer Scott McPherson providing steady, light-handed accompaniment, Jennings offered one upbeat fan favorite early on, “California (Pt. II),” but otherwise stuck to relatively obscure and less-than-sunny material for most of the show, including the opener “Future King,” “Heaven” and “When It’s Real” -- all from the latest record -- as well as the rarely played older cut “Confidant” and 2011’s “Rudy.”
Much like the incomparably elegant opening set by the Pines – who would join the headliner at show’s end, too -- Jennings’ performance offered some beautiful, heart-tugging moments perfect for a starry night. That included the three-song solo montage in the middle of the show featuring sweeter tunes, starting with “Sunlight” and including a lyrically rich, semi-romantic new song that Jennings said will be included on an album he’ll start recording in two weeks. Even that solo section, however, was as mellow as the zoo’s two-toed sloth.
The tempos and mood finally picked up before the encore, as fans sang along to “Crown” and then kept on singing through the classic kiss-off “Your New Man” and the slacker anthem “Nothing.” The volume picked up, too, with an electrified version of “The Mountain” followed by “Two Dollar Man," a Skip James-ian bluesy rocker off last year’s album.
Jennings left out many of his best-loved songs in the end; and more power to him if that’s what he needs to do to find his mojo again on stage. He didn’t quite have it with him Saturday, but for longtime fans it was rewarding to see him searching and reaching through his ever-expanding bag of songs. And it sure sounded like Ricky still had a fun birthday anyway.