BIG RED: Brett Dennen packs house everywhere

by Ryan Snyder

Even those who write about music need a vacation every now and then, but that doesn’t mean that the work stops with it. Mine happened to come in the form of a long weekend with my good friend and college roommate, which explains why there’s a review from a concert joint in Indianapolis showing up in a North Carolina weekly. This week’s subject, however, commands attention, regardless of the venue. He’s certainly one of the more unlikely rock stars you’ll ever come across. Between his shaggy red mop, pasty features and his gangly stature, Brett Dennen (www. doesn’t look anything like a guy who sells out concerts wherever he goes. He’s incredibly awkward looking, this much is true. But it’s those highly unconventional looks that are also an enormous part of his appeal. Combine that with his palliative SoCal voice and themes of cross-cultural unity, and it’s like the immortal spirit of Bob Marley settled into a chubby, ginger-headed kid. It was only fitting that he was chosen to close out the final evening of one of the most popular live music venues in Indianapolis. Despite its short lifespan, the Music Mill achieved immense popularity in the area by catering to all age ranges. While its noble intentions were certainly appreciated by the under-21 crowd, it was not a business model that could reasonably sustain itself at its current rate of talent acquisition. From its first show with the Scissor Sisters over four years ago to the last one on Feb. 27 with Dennen, it kept local music fans happy with its tasteful calendar of artists, reasonable prices and wide appeal, but it unfortunately couldn’t survive with the insignificant amount of alcohol sold at all-ages shows. There was a special concession made with Dennen’s appearance, however. A special eight-foot wall was put up to cordon off underage attendees from the bar area with identification being checked with everyone who entered. This might work for a show that looked to be well over capacity like Dennen’s, but the extra labor cost was obviously impractical on a nightly basis. The show opened with a highly energetic performance from the Little Ones, who’ve supported Dennen the entire tour with their penchant for playing multiple instruments and their own surf’s-up brand of power pop. Their album Morning Tide has slowly begun to pick up steam since its July 2008 release. Dennen himself took the stage to dimmed lights and uproarious applause after his four-piece backing band assembled at their posts. His trademark ascot and T-shirt ensemble was a wardrobe choice that can only be gotten away with in Los Angeles. The stage was aglow in Santa Maria candles and lit incense sticks, the aroma from which was strong enough to be picked up from just about anywhere within the cavernous room, as Dennen opened up with “When You Feel It.” “With it being the last night here, we should do something special and if you think of something, let me know,” Dennen said to the devoted audience. “You definitely should have a good time.” Dennen kept a great balance of laid-back tunes and funky grooves thoughout most of the show. He’s so smooth that he would put an audience to sleep if it were not for the indescribably sexual energy that he exudes. He’s on the Jack Johnson wavelength of mellowness, but his semi-ugly bellydancer jig with his acoustic guitar firmly cradled draws eyes to him at all times. The only time over the course of the 90-minute set where he seemed to lose the audience was during “Ain’t Gonna Lose You.” The severe snooze factor of the droning outro left the crowd seeming more than a little disinterested. They snapped out of it quickly with the sheer funkiness of “Makin’ Love,” a great song that Dennen noted wasn’t found on any of his albums. With a bassist like Ron Johnson, also of the incredible jazz-funk outfit Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, in the fold, thick grooves liked that flowed naturally. The last encore at the Music Mill included Dennen doing a solo acoustic mini-set that included favorites “Desert Sunrise” and a great cover of Modest Mouse’s “So Much Beauty in Dirt.” Dennen’s band returned for another cover, this time Tom Petty’s classic “Won’t Back Down.” It was a fitting end to the short but explosive life of a great venue. Throughout the show, Dennen seemed under the influence of more than just the Holy Spirit, as his rambling stage banter included sage musings on life, love and politics. The latter of which came much to the chagrin of my company. However, Indianapolis’ preeminent clinical psychdoctoral candidate did want me to add that she thought Dennen created an air of welcome acceptance, as if he was welcoming you into his living room for a midnight jam session. Welcome to the exciting world of music journalism, Candace.