Mason Jennings, Zach Gill

Rialto Theatre, Tuesday, Nov. 18

Zach Gill is a one-man variety show. Sitting in an office chair playing a 21st-century kazoo, he dominated the Rialto stage with a set of songs ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

It's easy to see why he rhapsodized to the crowd about the Chicago Store. A visit there must seem like a family reunion for the contents of his tour van: A djembe, keyboard, ukulele, floor bass, accordion and, of course, the kazoo all took star turns in his songs about love, life and his daughter.

The many textures he and his instrument collection evoke make him seem an anachronism in this era of layered loops and samples. But his music is like that, too--an update of the wildly popular piano-bar performers of the last century who attracted followings with show tunes and Cole Porter covers. Gill's repertoire is apparently all original, though, and very much of the modern era. The grit and humor of his lyrics, while almost comparably erudite, would never fly in polite, cocktail-party company. They're much better suited to the beer-and-irony rock-club atmosphere, and the college kids loved him.

Mason Jennings held the crowd, both solo and with his band, primarily with his voice--a highly personal instrument with analogs in both Bob Dylan and Richard Buckner. The clarity of his diction was exceptional, and essential to putting across his complex lyrics. Credit's due, too, to the upgrades of the Rialto's sound system.

Jennings has a lyrical gift for the vérité aspects of loving, like the intense embarrassment when you realize your digs aren't worthy in "Nothing," the humorous aspects of jealous fantasies in "Your New Man," and the wishful balm for hairline cracks in the Zen-like crowd favorite "Be Here Now." But he shines most when his songs occasionally explore Eastern philosophy, the corners of the world he's seen and subtly plied political points of view. Making a debut in the latter category was "So Many Ways to Die," a laugh-to-keep-from-crying litany of looming environmental and biological disasters he's learned about from researchers he's accompanied to endangered locales.

The energy and originality of Jennings' music and performance made the set more than worth the ticket cost; the education, for the willing, was priceless.

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