When I was in college, my friends and I would take regular trips to Washington, D.C., where we’d see any show that wasn’t coming through our tiny college town of Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a two and a half tour trek to D.C., most of it spent on an empty stretch of Rt. 29 that wound its way through open fields and sleepy commuter towns. Since none of us had any money, we’d drive straight home after each show, grabbing a late dinner at some fast-food place and usually pulling into Charlottesville around 3 or 4 in the morning. It was a brutal way to get our music fix, but it seemed easy enough at the time. And while I realize we probably saw a ton of different bands out there, one name always springs to mind whenever I think about those trips: Something Corporate.
The band’s frontman, Andrew McMahon, was the same age as us. The kids in the audience were the same age as us. Every single concert felt like a shared experience, from the group’s headlining shows at the 9:30 Club — which I remember quite clearly, probably because McMahon set his piano on fire at one of them — to the awkward but well-intentioned gig at a ballroom on American University’s campus, which really wasn’t the best venue for a band that sets its instruments ablaze. Familiar faces filled the audience at each show, and everyone knew when to sing along, when to shout, when to join in. It was like a little community of high-school kids and college students, all of us in love with the same song.
By the time graduation rolled around, I’d outgrown most of the Something Corporate tunes, but I hadn’t outgrown McMahon. He was still making music, this time as part of a new project called Jack’s Mannequin. The new stuff was better than Something Corporate’s material — sunnier, warmer, and not so inextricably linked with the whole Drive-Thru Records scene, which had begun to seem a bit stale to me. I was growing up, I guess, and so was McMahon. He was still providing the soundtrack and I was still listening.
Even so, it took me seven years to catch my first Jack’s Mannequin show. For whatever reason, I never felt the need to drive two and a half hours to see the new band play. I listened from afar — especially to the first album, Everything in Transit, which I still love — not totally forsaking McMahon’s music but hardly championing it the way I once did.
What a waste. Jack’s Mannequin played Nashville’s Cannery Ballroom last week, and I finally went, curious to see McMahon after such a long break. Talking to the guy backstage, I learned that Nashville holds significant weight for McMahon, who wrote several songs from People and Things in Music City and nearly moved here with his wife after growing tired of Los Angeles. So even though the Cannery Ballroom performance was his headlining show in Nashville — ever — it still had the energy of a hometown show, with close friends in the audience and a longer-than-usual setlist that bounced between all three JM albums in equal measure. There were still a lot of kids in the audience — the kind who probably wouldn’t be averse to making a 5-hour roundtrip to see McMahon play — but the crowd skewed older than I expected, with plenty of 30something fans who’d clearly grown up with Something Corporate and are now having kids of their own. But for those 90 minutes, everyone felt young, and Jack’s Mannequin proved that they’re still worth a long drive.