Jennings, a towering, square-jawed Minneapolis songwriter that looks more like the gawky star center for the University of Minnesota Gophers than the blossoming soldier of semantics that he is, just may be the next great American wordsmith. His voice carries the same nasal tone that defined formative Dylan, but his work happily resonates with a post-Beatles melodic zeal more contagious than anything to be found in Dylan's early-'60s Dinkytown.
Just as the under-30 singer/songwriter types like John Mayer and Jack Johnson (incidentally, one of Jennings' best friends and long-time touring mates) are receiving a lion's share of Top 40 airplay and as record labels clamor to ink deals with the next six-string acoustic phenoms, Jennings--writing and touring with the same earnest passion and social acuity that have shaped his words since 1994--has managed to lurk somewhere just under stardom's radar.
Jennings' records to date form a repertoire as excitingly piebald as any. His eight-track debut album breathes with the dynamic hooks and quirky guitar lines of solo Lennon and Attractions-era Costello, while his raw sophomore effort, 2000's brilliant Birds Flying Away, musters the political fireball power of Paul Westerberg fronting The Clash (with Leadbelly sitting in for good measure).
His most recent album (save a batch of songs written and 1994 and recorded solo in 2002 as Simple Life), the sublime Century Spring, finds a betrothed Jennings opting to romanticize rather than rage against the machine as he mesmerizes with some of the most gleefully amorous numbers that Todd Rundgren forgot to write.
These days, though, Jennings--in the midst of a two-month tour before heading back into the studio--has returned to his impassioned, no-excuses political poetry. Traveling across the country with a newly formed, powerhouse trio and acoustic distortion pedals courtesy of Johnson, the surprisingly soft-spoken Minnesotan has rekindled his anti-establishment tongue lashing, speaking for and to new audiences while crooning for peace in its seemingly darkest hour.
Who knows? Some lucky audiences may even hear "Masters of War." Some musicians do care, after all.
Mason Jennings, on his first tour of the Southeast, plays Go! Room 4 in Carrboro Thursday night. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased at the door.