Lollapalooza 2008 Day 2: Mason Jennings, Dierks Bentley
It’s got to be hard rocking Zen Buddhism at a fest like this (for example, what do the gurus say about the scourge of ironic coochie cutters?). Yes, who else could I be talking about but Mr. One-Hand-Clapping, the Minneapolis singer-songwriter Mason Jennings.
I’ve actually seen Jennings three infrequent times over his decade-long career and much to my relief, but not my surprise, the brother has not changed. A bit. While the rest of Lolla’s roster can be at turns aggro, uber-sensitive, enigmatic or starkly ironic, Jennings is simply flat. And I mean that in a good way.
In other words, Jennings seems like the guy you’d want around while you’re having a rocky comedown from an acid trip. “Nothing,” one of his earliest numbers today, delivered his motto and his plea: “Know what it means when I say nothing.”
And that brevity, that exquisite simplicity, is a lot of what powers his music. Dressed in a plain t-shirt and jeans and sporting a big brown ‘fro, Jennings plays an unadorned acoustic guitar (run through a distortion pedal for solos), performs nearly all his songs and chords in root position on his instrument, and sings with a voice so relaxed, it often sounds like he’s speaking (I actually think he picks up a lot of inflections from old-school rappers like Slick Rick but that’s another post). In fact, I wonder how many of his fans don’t giggle every once in a while during his shows. Are we always laughing with him or are we sometimes laughing at him?
Under a blazing hot sun, this aesthetic helps keep the frying crowd cool. Safe to say that Jennings will be the only artist at the fest who gets people clapping along to a song about how great Jesus and Buddha really are.
Dierks Bentley also played in the hot sun, but he didn’t succeed in cooling anyone down. With his whole band dressed head-to-toe in black, Bentley looked mannered and tentative and perhaps exhausted from the heat (who designed this wardrobe?!). I felt hot just looking at them (and I was already hot).
Like a lot of contemporary country, if you subtract the pedal steel and the vague Southern accent, you have Richard Marx (not that that’s a bad thing, dear reader). But Bentley seems like a particularly egregious choice as Lolla’s token country performer, both because so little separates him from, say, Bon Jovi, and because he doesn’t have the breathtaking vocal skill that earns country’s elite their staying power (cf. Carrie Underwood, Josh Turner, Gretchen Wilson).
Tracks like “What Was I Thinking?” (featuring a pathetic shout-out to his “little white tank top army”) or “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do” tell stories with little nuance and a lot of macho posturing. Midway through the set, Bentley acknowledges the fact that he’s the only country artist at Lolla but he wastes the moment with another cliché. “Country music is a lot like rock. We get out hearts broken and then we go and drink beer,” he says to the cheering masses. If I had a dime for every time that beer plus broken hearts b.s. is used….I realize hey, dudes will be dudes. But Bentley would do well to add some genuine heartbreakers to his set, a la Kenny Chesney, instead of just hammering us over the head with his tragic invulnerability.
Props to his ace band, featuring pedal steel, lead telecaster guitar, bass and drums, which plowed through the material with precision and aplomb. They deserve better than these songs. I don’t know if Dierks does.
Crowd observation: When did so many dudes start getting back tats?
Photo: Greg Hanrahan. See more Lollapalooza Day 2 pictures in our Flickr stream.