Brett Dennen opened the U.S. tour for new album "Smoke and Mirrors" last night before an adoring, sold out crowd at Central Presbyterian Church. But although the choir seemed to love the preaching of this young, positivity-prone redhead from Northern California, one churchgoer pulled out a notebook and chronicled the hour and a half of false worship.
"To the row full of women dancing hard to ‘Sweet Persuasion,’" he scribbled. "You’re wrong." During the full pop number, "She’s Mine," the non-believer wrote "Brett Dennen fans are not allowed to make fun of the more talented Justin Bieber." And then, as the approximately 65% female crowd sang along to new single "Wild Child," which "borrows" from Tom Petty’s "Free Falling," the Philistine from the news gathering flock did write, "I wonder if Dennen’s set list just has the names of who he’s ripping off on each song." Ah, but there’d be too many Neil Youngs, too many "Graceland"s.
One mid-set exception was the trancey "There’s So Much More." But although that song didn’t sound like anyone else, it pointed out another drawback to Dennen’s ouevre: almost all the song titles are well worn themes. But, then, his new album is called "Smoke and Mirrors," as Dennen proves fearless to clichés.
In his bio, Dennen readily admits that the Paul Simon album which set the record for frequent flier miles is the biggest musical influence. And so we had bits of Soweto guitar on such numbers as opener "Darling Do Not Fear" and "Make You Crazy," which had ‘em dancing in the pews. But the set didn’t really lift off until Dennen flew his Counting Crows flag on "Comeback Kid (That’s My Dog)" and "Sydney (I’ll Come Running.)" That’s what the show was missing- parentheses! Meanwhile, the lone doubter jotted "Adam Duritz with SPF 45."
For the first show on a tour, you expect a few kinks to be worked out by the time they get to Phoenix. But there were long, awkward pauses between songs, when the lanky ginger in black glasses moseyed back to change guitars like he was getting a Fresca from the fridge. Then there was constant tuning of the guitars. Having never seen Dennen in concert, I figured he just had a weak voice until someone in the back yelled for the mic to be turned up. Show dynamics were non-existent for the first 45 minutes, with only the crowd proving it wasn’t a rehearsal.
Best song of the night was "Blessed," from his self-titled 2004 debut, as the church went into full on revival mode. "I’m gonna celebrate being alive" they sang along with their musical spiritual advisor, who was wearing shoes for a change, they murmurred, like the time Jerry Garcia wore a blue t-shirt instead of black. There’s definitely a Christian rock element to Dennen’s music, which could explain some of the fanaticism. I counted five singalongs and only two were scripted.
"Sydney" ended the set splendidly. Everyone was dancing and singing along and, for once, the Van the critic was reminded of was Morrison, not the vehicle Dennen deserved in tour in instead of the big bus with bunks and booths. But after vibrant clapping and whistling for an encore, Dennen came out alone, with an acoustic guitar, and broke the cool spirit in the room with open mike versions of the new "Only Want You" and old favorite "Heaven." His childlike voice sounded, to me, like Adam Sandler.
Since I spent last night in church, I have to make a confession. Before yesterday afternoon, I knew as much about Brett Dennen as I did the homeless guy who offered to watch my legally-parked car for a dollar. Yeah, I heard "Ain’t No Reason" on KGSR about a thousand times, but that was it until my pal Spotify helped me cram. I didn’t put in the hundred hours Malcolm Gladwell says you have to in order to fully appreciate Brett Dennen. But, I came with an open mind, I did. And all I have to say to BD, is that I knew John Denver and, you, sir, are no John Denver.