If it wasn’t for Brett Dennen being about eight feet tall, no one past the front two rows would have even seen him at the not-really-even-standing-room-only show at The Grey Eagle. So, on the downside, the Orange Peel might have been a less sweaty venue for Dennen to perform. But it wouldn’t have been as cozy, and we wouldn’t have heard Dennen’s story about his first Grey Eagle show. Apparently, the sound man back then (this is before the California-based singer-songwriter had radio hits) told the band something along the lines of, “I know you’d be good musicians because you played in the same clothes you showed up in.”
Dennen said that, at the time, he thought those would be words he’d lived by. Not so: “Today I changed clothes three times!” he announced. The winning outfit, he said was his Mumford and Sons Halloween costume. (There were suspenders.)
The show started with “Sweet Persuasion,” the lead track off Dennen’s new album, Smoke and Mirrors. He hit his stride a few songs in with “She’s Mine” from So Much More.
It was the first but not last song that turned into a total singalong, with Dennen’s back catalog (understandably) overshadowing his new material. But there’s this: The older songs show their influences. “Wrong About Me” recalls Van Morrison cover, “She’s Mine” borrows from Dylan; “Darlin Do Not Fear” nods to Paul Simon. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that, but much of Dennen’s new album feels original and so, perhaps, more wholly his own voice. And what’s so great about Dennen, if you’re a fan, is his weird and unwieldy voice. His is the voice of the outsider who doesn’t give a damn.
Dennen, with his bright hair and bright clothes and crazy dance moves, is a one-man campaign for being yourself in a really big way.
The other thing about Dennen is it’s hard to see him and listen to him and not be infected with his highly contagious sense of joy. In fact, that’s probably much of why he packs venues. And also probably why the crowd thinned a bit on the handful of slower songs (including the title track from Smoke and Mirrors). But the room filled quickly with the opening notes of “Crazy.” That song is pretty thoughtful, if you’re paying attention to the lyrics, but musically it’s all about Dennen’s lanky, easy rhythm and (at the Grey Eagle) a zealous organ solo.
“Comeback Kid” turned into a dance party with Dennen feeding off the audience’s energy. Even the sound man was unconsciously dancing in his booth. And, if there’s any takeaway here at all, it’s the sound men are the keepers of rare and important wisdom.