“Tonight’s not a show, this is family.” That’s how Brett Dennen welcomed the packed theater on Sunday night at The Fox, and he was right. He was just a man with a guitar, playing for a room filled with friends who had clearly been with him from the beginning. When he opened the show up to requests, songs were called out from all of his albums, dating back a decade.
Boulder lucked out in being chosen for Dennen’s tour. Dennen explained to the audience that in planning the tour, they had been unsure whether they should play at The Fox. “Will a solo acoustic show work in Boulder?” he asked. Of course it would. Dennen is the image of everything that Boulder stands for without even trying.
Decked out in a flannel shirt drinking tea from a tin cup, Dennen bantered with the audience and joked with some of the upfront observers. What caught my eye was Dennen’s beanie: When I chatted with Dennen the week before the show, he explained, “I haven’t had a haircut and it’s getting long, so if you see me wearing a beanie, then you know, uh oh, his hair is out of control.”
As the show got started, a relationship of mutual admiration developed. The audience was a reflection of him, his laid-back demeanor and comfortable approach, wide-eyed and ready to share an experience. And he was a reflection of us, or more so what we all wanted to be, channeling his past experiences into art and speaking his truth.
Having said before that his target audience is women aged 25 to 45, he seems to have underestimated his reach. The age range went from slightly lower to quite a bit higher, and there was an even balance of genders.
At times he seemed generations ahead of the many college students present, particularly when he took a song request from Twitter, something he alluded to being baffled by. He joked, “I checked it on my phone. How does that work?”
At other times he was delightfully childlike in both his friendly mocking of audience members and his feigned embarrassment of his dirty fingernails. “I can’t believe they even let me on stage,” he said, right before taking a break to clean his fingernails.
Dennen’s prepared set-list consisted of only one song: She’s Mine. For the rest of the show he played the dangerous game of audience requests. The objective of the show, as it became clear later on, was to unearth “rare gems” that you wouldn’t hear on an ordinary album tour. That didn’t keep the audience from yelling out every hit he had produced over the past decade, which visibly annoyed both audience members and Dennen, though he had the tact to quietly tolerate it.
Dennen resisted the demands of the audience for many of the hit requests, only relenting to play “Sydney (I’ll Come Running),” saying “You have to give the people what they want to hear.” Throughout the show, it seemed like he had taken it as a personal challenge to deny the people who requested “Blessed” loudly and repeatedly from start to finish. He never folded.
The many musical influences present in Dennen’s music surfaced, even in solo acoustic format. He has an appreciation for country, Americana, folk, and reggae, and has also been known to release chart-topping radio hits that follow you around all day. He provided a balanced taste of each of these elements during his show.
Before releasing his most recent album, Smoke and Mirrors, Dennen took about a year off to go rediscover himself by moving to the mountains and connecting with nature. This unique approach to writing music meant that it was only fitting for him to embark on the challenge of a solo acoustic performance, and it clearly keeps him on his toes. Some songs took him a second to adjust to, but that added to the intimacy of the experience, including the audience on his journey while he found his way.
His songs, much like those of his opener Willy Tea Taylor, are the kind that make the listener feel like they, too, should express themselves. More than likely they will go home and start writing a song about a sandwich, only to realize that they should probably leave it to the pros. But even if we’re not all destined for song writing, Dennen is the type to make people believe they can do what they want.
Along the way, Dennen made the occasional error on the guitar or in the lyrics, but that actually made the show better. He would make a mistake and laugh, then we would all delight in the fact that we were in on the joke. The family vibe grew stronger.
Adding to his conscientious, down-to-earth image, Dennen gave a shout-out to the non-profit “Love Hope Strength,” hoping that audience members would be motivated to get involved. He claims it has worked in the past.
Before heading into the encore, Dennen wrapped up the show with the upbeat hit “Comeback Kid (That’s My Dog),” and you’d have been hard-pressed to find one person in the audience not singing along. “Well, here comes a comeback,” sang Dennen. “The kid is back, back on track.” Cheers to that.
Setlist: She’s Mine. Requests: Darling Do Not Fear, Wild Child, Heaven, San Francisco, The One Who Loves You the Most, Queen of the Westside, Wrong About Me, Sydney (I’ll Come Running), Make the Most, Dancing at a Funeral, Don’t Forget, Comeback Kid (That’s My Dog) Encore: Ain’t No Reason, Sweet Persuasion, Wild Heart, Make You Crazy
Read below for the full interview I had the opportunity to do with Dennen:
CUI: So I know that after the Loverboy tour, you took some time off and went and lived in the mountains for a while. Can you tell me what this did for you as an artist, or even just in general, as a person?
BD: Well, as an artist it gave me some time, just away. Usually when you get momentum going with music and shows, you start to be in demand and you play and you play and you got to go where the music is. You’re perpetually on tour. You can definitely take some time off, but not a lot, just enough to put more music out so you can keep going. And you get into that cycle for three, four, five albums. I’d been in that cycle for a while, and I had to pull the plug on it. Songs weren’t coming to me the way they used to. It used to be much easier just to have more and more things to say and keep writing. But it wasn’t really happening that way. It was very apparent that it was time to take a break, slow down and dig a little deeper. So that’s what I did. For a while I didn’t play any music, I just got back to living a good quality life and being outside. And then when the time was right, slowly and effortlessly, inspiration started to seep back into me and I‘d spend my days writing when it felt good, but didn’t force myself. It was all very natural. I was just evaluating: What are the things that I want? How much do I want them? What’s really important to me? It’s just about living my own life and trying not to succumb to other people’s views of me or what I think their views should be. Just listening to my inner voice and finding out who I really am and what my purpose is. I need to be myself. My gift is my music and I have to figure out how to cultivate that and share it. So that’s the record that came out of that, Smoke and Mirrors.
CUI; Did it teach you anything about your process, and whether you needed to change that?
BD: My process changes every album. I write songs because they help me explore the world and make sense of the world and explain my place in it. So I can’t really go back to the same drawing board from song to song. If I’ve written a song, I can’t write it again. I can’t go to that same place I was in, that same state. I have to keep expanding, I have to keep exploring new territory, and that means I have to find new sources of inspiration, new ways to write a song. Sometimes songs come to me while I’m driving so I have to pull over. Sometimes songs come to me when I’m just sitting around playing guitar.
CUI: Going back before all of this started, how did you decide on music in the first place?
BD: Well, it wasn’t simply that I set out to do it at a young age. It grew on me and took over my life slowly. I started playing guitar when I was a kid and I was in some fun cover bands in high school and then in college I was in a band that wrote its own material and we had dreams of just becoming the biggest bar in town in Santa Cruz. We didn’t really dream further than that. We just wanted to be the cool band in town. I was the guitar and mandolin player, but I started writing songs for the singer to sing and that was the spark for me. I had never felt as good as I felt when I was writing a song. It’s just a feeling that you’ve got something to say to the world, you’ve got something to get off your chest. It’s the ultimate expression of yourself and purity and truth since it comes straight from the heart. And once I started writing songs, I realized I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. So I quit the band. I had a day job for several years, but I would write songs here and there, and the more I would write the more it would start taking over my life, and the more I identified myself as a musician, so one day I just quit everything except music and I started playing around town and that grew into playing around California and that just kind of slowly evolved.
CUI: Do you have any advice for college students who are still trying to find our niche?
BD: Don’t forget to take some time to step back and be grateful for how great it is, the space that you’re in, because it’s a really fertile time. You have nothing but the road ahead and I’m sure you’re swirling with inspiration and big dreams, and that’s just a really great place to be in. If you’re lucky enough and you can make a life where you do something you love and you’re following your heart, that’s like, the greatest thing you can do. But it doesn’t mean it’s always happy. It’s a struggle. You have to find a way to make money. Decisions get made. But you’re never as open-eyed and open hearted as you are when you’re first getting going.
When I think about myself back then and the early songs I wrote, I felt like I was on the outside looking in on a world I wanted to be a part of. And once I got into that, once I made a name for myself, once I broke through, I thought everything would be better and better, but that’s just no way to live your life. Because then success or happiness is on the other side of something you have to achieve first, and then you’re never gonna get it. And I didn’t realize how great I had it when I was in control of everything. I had the magic and no one else knew about it yet. It just takes believing in yourself. And why not believe in yourself? Nobody in this world knows what they’re doing. Not even a little bit. Everybody’s just making it up as you go along. It’s the frickin’ hardest thing to be yourself.
Especially with music. You’re like, so-and-so wrote this song and it was a hit and everyone loved it, maybe I should write a song like that. NO! Don’t! For god’s sake, that’s the worst thing you could possibly do. I struggle with that everyday. Write a song that you think is interesting, who cares if no one likes it? It’s still authentic. It’s better to be authentic than an imitation of somebody else. It’s never going to be as good, and people are going to criticize you for being something that you’re not.
We come from the generation where people felt like they had to do things a certain way and have kids by a certain time and we’re all realizing that that’s just bullshit. The rest of your life is your life, it’s up to you to choose to live the way you want to live.
CUI; I saw a show of yours in Denver during your Loverboy tour and what really stuck out to me was that you were very comfortable and dancing around and you had this sort of endearing charm about you. Have you always felt that comfortable putting yourself out there on stage?
BD: No, naturally I’m much more of an introvert. Music and being on stage helped bring out my inner exuberance. But it took a while. And my first albums that I made came from more of an introverted place. More of a shy, sensitive, vulnerable place. You can probably hear it in my voice and see it in my earlier performances. And then I just spent more and more time travelling and being on stage and writing and growing. And I think that the great thing about music is that everybody should take the opportunity to share how they change and grow in their music. So I started getting more comfortable with people and the music reflected that. I started making music that was more about dancing, and now I feel comfortable with both.
CUI: Is there anything that this album taught you that you’d like to change for future albums?
BD: This album, I think, was a catalyst of an important time in my life. I can fall into a trap of trying to please people. I’m a middle child, I’m a peacemaker and I try to make people happy. When you get to where I’ve gotten musically, you have a lot of people around you; managers, a label, agents. And everybody’s telling me, “We have goals, we want to sell records, we want more people to come to the shows.” Everyone’s got an opinion. It affects you and makes you question your worth. It’s just like a kid on a playground trying to fit in. I don’t care about any of that anymore. For the next album I’m going to release it’s going to be for me, and only me. I’m still going to write songs I know my fans will like, but it’s still going to be a full expression of me.
CUI: Is there a particular musician that you have always wanted to work with?
BD: Not really, I don’t ever think about stuff like that. I have lots of friends that I’ve collaborated with and lots of people I admire that I’ve gotten to meet. I have my musical heroes, like Paul Simon and Van Morrison, but I don’t dream about playing with them ever because I want them to stay my heroes. And when collaborations happen, I just like to let them happen naturally. I don’t like to force them.
CUI: Do you always see yourself doing music, or do you think you’ll maybe become a mountain man or something?
BD: You know, I think about that every day. (Laughs). What would I do if people stopped coming to my shows? Sometimes I think maybe I’ll try to make a living as a painter. I don’t know. The other day I was in the Arches National Park and I was driving past this campground and I was like, How lucky is that? All they have to do is live in a beautiful national park and make sure that people paid to camp. I could do that. That’s my back-up plan. I could be a gardener, that could be fun. Anything outside. Obviously I’m going to keep writing songs and playing shows, as long as people come.
CUI: For the show in Boulder this weekend you’re doing solo acoustic, do you like that style of performance more than performing with a band?
BD: Right now, I do, because I’m in it and I love the banter between myself and the audience, which I don’t get to do with a band. With a band it’s more rehearsed, it’s a little more narrow. When I play solo acoustic, I can play anything from any album. When I tour with the band, we learn about 25 to 30 songs and then every night we play 15 to 20 of those. The set-list is more important. Whereas for solo acoustic, it’s just me and a guitar. Some songs can be more dynamic, some songs can be faster, but in general it’s just a guy and a guitar. So I can play anything really, and create the set-list live. I usually go out there with four or five songs that I wanna play and then I open it up to a request and I try to play what people come there to hear. I don’t want people going home saying, “Why the hell didn’t he play this? I’ve been waiting to see him for ten years and I finally see him and he didn’t frickin play the song I wanted to hear.” I don’t want that to happen. And it’s great for me when people request songs that I haven’t played in years. I think that makes it really special.
CUI: The most important question: How do you get your hair so fluffy?
BD: (Laughs) I don’t know! It doesn’t feel fluffy. I don’t wash it for that reason, because when I do wash my hair it’s super light and fluffy and you can’t control it, so I just let it stay dirty so I can manage it a little bit more. My hair’s just really thick. My brother’s head is bigger than mine, and he has big hair. It’s just like this big mop. And he can’t wear a hat. It’s just the joke of the family. And I’m sort of right behind him. I haven’t had a haircut and it’s getting long, so if you see me wearing a beanie, then you know, uh oh, his hair is out of control. (Laughs)
CUI: Any fun facts that you want to share with the CU Students?
BD: I’ve always enjoyed playing Boulder. Colorado in general is a special place for me. It seems like I play in Colorado like seven times a year. The first time I ever played boulder, I went out drinking that night and everywhere we went people were like, following us around. It was a wild time. I don’t think that could happen anywhere else other than Boulder. It’s funky and hippy and crunchy, but then there’s a lot of money, too, so then there’s people who sort of balance that out. And it’s got a lot of really healthy, outdoor adventure people, and runners and climbers. So there are a lot of beautiful people who are fit and then there are a lot of grungy people who are the opposite. So I like it.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Magdalen Wagner at firstname.lastname@example.org