Brett Dennen's the high school kid you never should have made fun of. And while you were busy scheming a way to steal his sack lunch, he was finger picking the air and shaping a voice that's completely his own.
Dennen, the shaggy redhead from Oakdale, California, plucked and trilled before a mostly seated crowd at the Doug Fir last night. It felt like kindergarten's coveted story time, but all grown up. In between sips of Pinot Noir (a smart choice in Portland), Dennen enslaved himself to his lyrics, rising and falling with them as though there was no choice in the first place. Channeling Citizen Cope and at times sounding soberingly similar to Van Morrison, Dennen wore a blanket of stares and sighs.
The crowd took to Dennen immediately, often interrupting him to share a few words. Responding to a question about his stage mate, Dennen jolted, "He's no sidekick, he's from another planet." Partner to his right, padding his bubbling jazzy vocals, was guitarist Andrew McKay, who alternated between flamenco-esque high registers and low, trodden base lines.
Being the eve of election day, most hands were occupied by extra drinks or a thin layer of sweat. Dennen lifted his glass and played "Mother Hen," proposing a toast to Barack Obama's late grandmother. This was just before nearly forgetting how to open his towering and human rights oriented hit, "Make You Crazy," which has taken Portland radio by storm. Our collective mind was partly elsewhere.
has perched young Dennen on their shoulders. He's 29 but a blind listen screams mid 50s. He has the the kind of voice that makes you want to see a cross section of his throat—and the kind of voice that can trump dueling guitars that occasionally meander into the redundant and uninspired. When the only thing remaining on stage was an empty bottle of wine and several empty bottles of Yerba Mate, the crowd was ready for nap time. I guess Dennen's crooning lullabies worked.
All photos by Mark Stock