Magnolia Electric Co.
The tripolar model of personality proposes each person is a composite of three sides: the way other people see them, the way they see themselves, and who they truly are. I agree with this theory but wonder if Jason Molina, lead singer of the Magnolia Electric Co., may have a fourth contingent, identifiable by his emotional reaction fans’ birthdays.
Rewind a year: My friends Leilani, Tim and I trek three hours across the border to Toronto to see Molina’s Magnolia forebearer, Songs: Ohia to celebrate a birthday. Leilani loves Songs: Ohia. She manages a record store that sells lots of Songs: Ohia albums. After a great performance, Leilani tells Molina that it is her birthday, how much she adores and endorses the band, and that she cannot think of a better gift for her special day than the setlist sitting forgotten in the dust and shadows on the nearby stage. He not only denies her b-day wish by telling her the setlist isn’t his to give but does it smiling. He does it with this look on his face that would make any mother pull the car over, smack hin in the jaw, and make him apologize to his sister for teasing.
It was a quiet ride back to the hotel that night. Aforementioned indie record store ceased playing S:OH on their speakers. I hadn’t seen Molina live since that Toronto show, and hadn’t considered it either until another friend proposed we celebrate his 24th birthday with Magnolia Electric Co. Recalling that smirk, I thought about how disappointing it is to realize that the power of music that means so much to a fan might not always be understood by the guy making it. But it is easy to get over the idea of dropping ten dollars for any show in any venue in New York. And, after all, it wasn’t my birthday.
We walk in during the last few songs of opening hip-hop duo Grand Buffet’s set. The white boy gangsta goofball act turns stale quickly. As I try drowning out this background noise I consider that the promoter, who paired this group with MEC’s bluesy rock, might be the same stooge who decides which DVDs to pair up in those combo packs you see at Best Buy. Only that guy, the one who gets excited at the prospect of picking up the Nic Cage Double Feature of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Rock for twenty bucks, would serve Grand Buffet as an appetizer to Magnolia Electric Co.
During Grand Buffet’s antics, Tim, the b-day boy, strolls up glowing as he shows me a guitar pick. He tells me he just spoke to Molina at the bar. Tim tells me he walked right up to him and began talking about the show in Toronto and how much he enjoyed the band’s recent live album. He then went on to tell the lead singer that he was here celebrating his birthday with a large group of friends/fans and was curious about the likelihood of hearing a rare live version of “Farewell Transmission”. Molina smiled and tells him how excited he was to speak with his fans and that Tim’s request might be in the cards tonight. I am speechless. The only thing that could catch me more off guard is if the band came out holding a birthday cake illuminated with 24 candles while ringing noisemakers.
The first thing a person observes when the band hits the stage is how short Molina is. He has such an understated presence. He looks and dresses like any blue collar American. He could be a bricklayer or an electrician. But he opens his mouth and huffs and puffs and his powerful tenor sweeps across the crowd like jagged broken glass, as vulnerable as a lover’s confession. Everyone involved understands this man owns his audience.
The band opens up with a faithful version of “The Dark Don’t Hide It”, a personal favorite from their live album, Trials & Errors. Guitarist Jason Groth hovers near Molina on stage. Groth looks like a long haired version of Kubiak from Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. This guy plays his guitar while lurching forward on his toes, eyes closed and every ounce of his body channeled into that moment. He head bangs during most of the show, as his floppy curly hair dances in his face. He is the definition of an entertainer and though he towers physically over Molina, his blistering whirlwind solos give girth to the subtlety of Molina’s rhythm guitar and brooding voice.
When the opening chords of “Farewell Transmission” chime in, several people other than Tim and I holler approval. During the song I catch more than a few people head banging and I am barely bothered that Molina decides to drop the passionate chorus: “I will try and know whatever I try, I will be gone but not forever” as his guitar wails through. As the song comes to a close, the music is sparse and when Molina beckons, “Listen,” everyone obeys.
“Hold on Magnolia” is as country as MEC gets and “Just Be Simple” is gorgeous. I liken a Magnolia show to a poet’s recitation, as his lyrics are reflective and his cadence permits listeners to absorb his words as much as his songwriting. But the house comes down during “I’ve Been Riding With the Ghost”. Before the drums set in, Molina pounds each syllable with emphasis during the opening stanzas when he moans, “While you’ve been busy/ crying about my past mistakes/ I’ve been trying/ to make a change/ I made a change,” I stop singing and become quiet. It is good to have you back, Jason.