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From campfire songs to the concert stage

Stewart Oksenhorn
Singer-songwriter Brett Dennen makes his Aspen debut, opening a show at Belly Up for the English Beat. (Gabriel Judet-Wienshel)
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While he was still in his teens, Brett Dennen realized his musical dreams. Granted he was aiming fairly low.As a kid, Dennen, who grew up in the northern California town of Oakdale, near Yosemite National Park, attended a summer camp in the High Sierras. Each day concluded with the whole camp gathering on a granite hillside, listening to the counselors strumming guitars and singing the songs of Neil Young, John Denver and Joni Mitchell. Dennen had aspirations not to be Neil or John or Joni, but simply the counselors who led the group singalong.”I idolized all the counselors who played,” said Dennen. “When I decided I wanted to play guitar, it was because I wanted to be one of those counselors.”Dennen did, indeed, become one of those counselors, strumming old songs in the twilight for a bunch of young campers. But with the November release of his second album, “So Much More,” on the Nashville label Dualtone, Dennen is earning more comparisons to Neil and Joni – as well as Jack (Johnson) and John (Mayer) – than he is to your standard, folksy camp counselor. The album landed the 27-year-old redhead an opening slot on last fall’s John Mayer/Sheryl Crow tour, and sets at the Bonnaroo and Bumbershoot festivals. But frequently Dennen prefers to emulate those amateur pickers who first inspired him.”Sometimes in concert, I step away from the mike, unplug the guitar, and get the audience to sing along with me,” he said by phone, from Kansas City. “It’s a powerful thing, like standing in front of the ocean. A lot of times I treat my concerts like a campfire experience, getting people involved.”****Dennen and his two siblings were home-schooled by their mother, who was also a painter. Their father had been a professional ceramist before children came along. After he moved into remodeling homes, he also sculpted and did woodworking on the side.”More than half of my time every day was spent drawing or writing or building something,” said Dennen. “I got really comfortable with being creative.”Dennen attended college at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where his studies were not in the arts, but in community studies and social change, which focused on community activism and nonprofit work. Dennen eyed a career in education, but something outside of the typical classroom – experimental education, the arts, gardening.

Also in college, he got his first taste of performing. Dennen was a member of a folky jam band, which he says was popular in its limited sphere. But Dennen’s role was limited to mandolin; he didn’t sing or write, which left him detached from the artistic process.”I didn’t feel creative enough. I wasn’t writing the songs,” he said. “But I wrote one song, and it felt good to write it and sing it and lead it. I liked not being on the side, flavoring the song, but being the meat of it.”Dennen tried writing for the band, but that didn’t satisfy him either. The songs seemed more suited to a simple setting and to Dennen’s own, gentle voice. When he finally began presenting those songs under his own name, with the most stripped-down backing, Dennen began to find his legs as an artist. And he found that getting onstage wasn’t only about performing a show, but about the sort of things he had wanted to do in college: create community, teach, advocate.”It became clear that all those things I wanted to do with education were happening with music,” he said. “I was leading, communicating – with an audience. It was a nice combination of all the things I like: reaching out, being with people, and educating people in a certain way. Not about the birds and bees, but about themselves. I think most people gathering for a concert, they learn something about themselves. And I’m not the teacher; I’m more the facilitator.”Dennen combines those interests not only onstage, but in more of a classroom setting. He is active with the Mosaic Project, a Berkeley-based organization that brings fifth-graders from all backgrounds to teach them about diversity, acceptance and nonviolent ways. Much of the teaching is done through songs.****Given that background, it is not surprising to hear that Dennen stresses his words above the sound of his music. It is likewise not surprising that the sound on “So Much More” is soft, built around Dennen’s acoustic guitar and his voice, high-pitched and clear, the better to deliver each word.The lyrics and the music originate from different places, which seems to be a key to his artistry. “I keep the music and the lyrics pretty separate,” said Dennen. “I don’t spend a lot of time writing a song with guitar in hand. It’s not word put to music, just to make music. It’s more a poem set to a song, and there’s enough separation for the songs to really be about the words. The music is the vehicle driving the words, the plate the words are served on.”Those words are most poignant on “I Asked When,” in which Dennen ponders the ills of the world – “I saw families taken from their land / Dynasties shattered and stolen” – and asks “when is the revolution?” The song is notable for how much the vocal juts out from the spare, repetitive musical backing. Even the radio single “There Is So Much More” empathizes with the pain of others: “In a world of suffering, why should I be so blessed?” Elsewhere, as in “The One Who Loves You the Most,” the mood is more romantic and the groove a little catchier, but Dennen always seems to have something weighty on his mind. And he can always be heard above the music, made in part by guests Keb’ Mo’ and string ace Greg Leisz.Dennen’s debut CD, a self-produced, eponymous album, was released in 2003. As soon as he signed with Dualtone, Dennen was eager to get to work on his next CD. His manager advised against it, saying there was still some pushing to be done with the first recording.

“But I was ready; I was due for making a record,” he said. “I was done pushing the old record.”Dennen makes his Aspen debut Sunday, March 4, opening for the ska-pop band the English Beat. He doesn’t know much about the headliner, which had its big moment in the ’80s, and he doesn’t mind opening for them. But Dennen is seeking his own listeners.”There’s nothing like playing for your own audience, when they know the words and they’re coming to see you,” he said.****March is traditionally the highlight of the winter concert season at this altitude. The promise of powder, sunshine and crowds of spring-breakers from Steamboat to Telluride proves tempting to reasonably big-name bands; in the days of the Double Diamond, the March calendar was something to look forward to.With Belly Up, it seems April is the coolest month. March at Belly Up has its highlights: North Mississippi Allstars, with guest singer Al Kapone (Monday and Tuesday, March 5-6); reggae acts Eek-A-Mouse (Sunday, March 11) and Morgan Heritage (Monday, March 12); the local debut of South African activist singer Vusi Mahlasela (March 20); and the Isley Brothers (March 21).But it can’t compare to April. With less than half the month filled in, April highlights include the John Popper Project, led by Blues Traveler frontman Popper (April 1); New Orleans groove band Galactic (April 5); soul singer India.Arie (April 6); Stephen Marley, featuring his brother, Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley (April 7); and neo-r&b dynamo John Legend. And that’s just the first eight days of the month.Rounding out April are Greyboy Allstars (April 12) and New York club band Brazilian Girls (April 20).

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com”I think most people gathering for a concert, they learn something about themselves. And I’m not the teacher; I’m more the facilitator.” Brett DennenBrett Dennen, opening for the English Beat (also on the bill: Tom Freund)Sunday, March 4, at 9 p.m.Belly Up


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