With Brett Dennen, looks are most certainly deceiving | AspenTimes.com
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With Brett Dennen, looks are most certainly deceiving

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times WeeklySinger-songwriter Brett Dennen performs Wednesday, April 1 at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN ” I have little experience in writing about how people look. I write about how they see the world, what they have done and hope to do, how they sound. Writing about someone’s looks seems terribly like an invasion to me.

So first let me say something about Brett Dennen’s music and presence. Last spring at Belly Up Aspen, I saw, for the first time, a Dennen performance. For maybe six months afterward, whenever someone asked what I’ve been listening to, I’d say they had to hear this California singer-songwriter ” preferably on a stage, playing live, where the folkie aesthetic of his songs gets filled with soul and sunshine. I consider Dennen my favorite find of 2008, purely on musical terms.

But it’s hard to come away from seeing Dennen without having something to say about his appearance. I feel as if I’m about to invite the wrath of God ” or almost as bad, Dennen himself. Still …. .

Start with his hair ” a mop that is as orange as human hair can get. When Dennen moves around the stage (and more on his dance steps below) the hair covers a face of pink skin and green eyes. There is no chin to speak of, just some folds of flesh that eventually become a partial neck, then a chest. Dennen is not fat, but he looks oversized and misproportioned.

“I’m not the typical-looking rock star person,” Dennen said from his home in Santa Monica.

In my imagination, I see the young Brett being picked on. He arms himself with a guitar and thrashes out songs of revenge and bile. He titles his debut “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass” (which is actually the title of an album by the gentle-minded band Yo La Tengo). His concerts spawn deadly mosh pits, and Dennen looks on with the schadenfreude of Davie “Lard Ass” Hogan, the beefy kid who causes the “total Barf-O-Rama” in “Stand By Me.”

This is not what happened.

Before Dennen made his proper recording debut, he released “Children’s Songs for Peace and a Better World.” There’s no irony there; the album, which won a Parents’ Choice Approved honor, was made with the Mosaic Project, a nonprofit which teaches kids tolerance and diversity through music. While he was still a part-time musician, Dennen taught with the Mosaic Project. “One of the most important things in the world is to be a model for young people, and I carry that with me onstage as a musician,” said Dennen.

An even greater influence on his musical persona than teaching was being a camp counselor. As a kid, Dennen aspired to be like the counselors who strummed guitars around the campfire. That wish was fulfilled and more: Following the release of his 2006 CD “So Much More,” Dennen was named an Artist to Watch by Rolling Stone. Dennen’s Belly Up show last spring was a sell-out, and he has played such venues as the Rothbury Festival, but he still looks back to his camper days for guidance.

“When I’m making music, even if it’s dance-poppy, I ask, ‘Can the song be boiled down and still played at the campfire?'” he said. “I try to get people to sing together, dance together, be part of something.”

Dennen’s latest album is “Hope For the Hopeless,” whose songs are meant as a reminder that hope doesn’t necessarily come from being content. “The whole thing was composed with stories of struggling and finding joy and hope in struggles,” he said.

And when the music doesn’t work, movement does. As uplifting as Dennen’s music is his dancing ” smooth, cool, infectious.

“It helps me play guitar better, to stay in the pocket,” he said. “And I’ve learned that if you’re dancing, it’s impossible to be in a bad mood.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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