Songs of hope, and more

Songsmith Brett Dennen blends musical craftsmanship with compassionate idealism

PEACE, LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING <br>Brett Dennen: “Sometimes I pretend I am a folk singer from the ‘60s.”

Brett Dennen: “Sometimes I pretend I am a folk singer from the ‘60s.”

Courtesy Of Dualtone Records

Preview: Brett Dennen performs Fri., Aug. 25, at the Chico Women’s Club. Show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets: $12; $15 at the door. For more information go to:

For the past week or so, my late-night and early-morning CD of choice has been a new album by a young singer-songwriter named Brett Dennen.

The 26-year-old Oakdale, Calif., resident is a masterful guitar player who uses a finger-picking, strumming combination that reminds me of the style Taj Mahal employed to great effect on his classic Giant Step album.

Dennen’s lyrics combine a humanistic empathy and reverence for the ability to love with a realistic skepticism regarding our current world culture’s tragically complicated economic, ecological, religious and political struggles.

An activist and educator as well as a popular touring performer, Dennen works with the Mosaic Project, a nonprofit organization in Berkeley where, he said, “We actually have a whole curriculum written into music. For everything we teach, there is a song. For example there is a song called ‘Fighting Is Not the Solution,’ where the lyrics teach a method of resolving conflicts without fighting.”

One senses that ‘60s idealism still burns brightly in Dennen, and much of his press makes justifiable reference to classic singer-songwriters of that era. The music he found most inspiring in his formative years, before he began writing his own songs, came from his parents collection.

“When I was young my parents introduced me to a lot of folk singers like Kate Wolf, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and James Taylor. I also heard a lot of Beatles and Paul Simon. I love the folk singers of the ‘60s. Sometimes I pretend I am a folk singer from the ‘60s.

He does have some contemporary favorites, though. “My favorite new songwriters are Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Ben Harper and [San Francisco songwriter] Sean Hayes.”

The new So Much More album is beautifully recorded, using full instrumentation including keyboards, steel guitar, bass and drums, but for his Women’s Club concert Dennen will be backed by drummer Randy Schwartz and either bassist Kevin McCormick, who has performed with Jackson Browne and Keb’ Mo', or Taras Prodaniuk, who has backed Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam. The trio setting should allow for plenty of great guitar playing from Dennen, and the world-class quality of his bandmates will no doubt provide an evening of memorable music.

The music on the album is meticulously arranged but conveys a sense of spontaneity; when asked if the live shows incorporate some improvisation, Dennen gave a reply that—maybe a trifle sarcastically—addresses the paradox of performing tightly arranged, yet spontaneous, music: “Yeah, we plan out a lot of spontaneity. We’ve been rehearsing a lot of improvisational jams. Sometimes I’ll be spontaneous without telling the band. For example, yesterday I played a B sharp instead of a C.”

On his MySpace page Dennen sums up “Ain’t No Reason,” from So Much More: “The most atrocious crimes against humanity happen every day, and we allow them. Not because we agree, but because it is our routine. We do what we do because things have always been done that way, and instead of changing, we are all waiting for some sort of savior of salvation.”

The summation may sound dour and daunting in print, but the music used to convey the emotion is filled with beauty and craftsmanship, and Dennen’s voice is a high, slightly rough-edged tenor that somehow imparts a hopeful and sympathetic air to the lyrics.

Given his stated mission of providing a message of solace and hope to his audiences by way of music, I couldn’t resist asking Dennen straight out if he thinks the human race will overcome its current state of crisis. Coming at the end of what was no doubt a long day of dealing with press inquisitors, his reply was wry but affirmative: “I’ll tell you later. Yes.”