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Dennis Brennan is one of the Boston area's leading rock/roots singer/songwriters.
Steve Morse on "Engagement"
Boston has a music legacy that needs no introduction. Think of the J. Geils Band, Morphine, and Willie Alexander for starters. At the heart of the scene, though, is an artist like Dennis Brennan. He's a cagey veteran who hasn't won similar fame but can electrify audiences with his ability to cross brilliantly from rock to soul, blues, country, and jazz, while breathing fresh life into each. On several nights a week, Brennan bops around New England clubs with a passion that is all too rare in today's homogenized music climate.
His latest album, the aptly titled "Engagement," is a perfect snapshot of Brennan at work. Divided equally into studio and live tracks, the diversity is stunning as he takes listeners on a journey that comes from the gut. And he doesn't apologize for its variety. "This record is such a mix because that's the way I hear things," he says. "I love not having one style or sound."
Longtime friend Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, who often sits in with Brennan's band at its weekly residency at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, offers this praise of his comrade: "The biggest challenge for any artist is to sustain and keep growing. Many musicians who stick with it can fall into a trap of becoming parodies of themselves. Dennis has always kept maturing, which is one of the hardest challenges, and that's why I always enjoy checking him out."
Brennan, who was born in the Boston suburb of Marlborough, has won a couple of Boston Music Awards in the "roots music" category, for want of a better term. He retains a down-to-earth sincerity and is a magnet for great musicians. The Dennis Brennan Band is an all-star unit featuring guitarists Duke Levine (who doubles as Wolf's guitarist and has toured with Mary Chapin Carpenter, plus has his own solo career) and Kevin Barry, who also has been in Carpenter's band and toured with multiple Grammy nominee Paula Cole. They're joined by drummer Billy Beard (Patty Griffin, Face to Face, and the Twinemen) and bassist Andrew Mazzone, whose credits are exhaustive when he's not handling entertainment law for Cambridge's HI-N-DRY Records, which occupies the space where the late legend Mark Sandman (of Morphine) once lived.
Brennan's bandmates know they can never take a night off when their boss is pounding the microphone. "Dennis is such a strong performer," says Levine. "He never phones it in, and that means everything to a sideman. If Dennis is giving something that is amazing, then you'd better give it, too." Or as guitarist Barry says, "I have never played with Dennis when he gives less than 100 percent."
That's true of the studio as well. The studio tracks on this album were done at HI-N- DRY and at Camp Street Studio in Cambridge, with the main production by Dennis and Billy Conway (who has played with Morphine, the Twinemen, and just about everyone else around town). The songs show a progressive sophistication on Brennan's part, with a nod toward romance ("It Ain't What You Think It Is" has a soulful edge and a survivor's lyric: "Pack up your baggage and put it with mine/ Let's fall in love and get it right this time"). Plus, the beautifully aching high third harmony on this song comes from the great Brian Templeton of The Radio Kings. Another tune, "Delmore Schwartz," pays homage to that arty misfit poet and former Harvard professor ("I dreamt I was hanging out with Delmore Schwartz," Brennan sings), with vital backing vocals from established Boston star Laurie Sargent and rising star Sarah Borges. And the affecting "When You Were Loving Him" finds Brennan joined by great singers Gabrielle Agachiko and Jake Brennan, who came by the studio to help out his dad.
The live tracks are just as compelling to Brennan fanatics like myself. Levine adds some electric sitar on stage, while the band romps from gritty, lunchpail rock to striking, Brennan-ized covers of songs by Merle Haggard and Woody Guthrie. Most were taped at Brennan's beloved, subterranean Lizard Lounge and supervised by ace producer/engineer Tom Dube, who has mixed recordings and tour sound for David Bowie and Richard Thompson. The results are top-tier all the way.
Admit it. You're intrigued. And you might like this further quote from Brennan: "I'm still just trying to remake 'Beggars Banquet' ," he says with a laugh. If that album rings a bell, then you'll like the Dennis Brennan Band just fine, no matter where you live.
-Steve Morse, longtime Boston Globe reviewer and cohost of "Morse on Music" on WBOS-FM
Dennis Brennan was born on the wrong side of the tracks in Marlboro, Massachusetts.
At age 9 he entered show business as Rumplestiltsken in a grammar school play. In 7th grade he performed "Louie Louie" with a local garage band at the Berlin, Ma. Town Hall and quickly evolved into "the lead singer"
That band evolved into "The Paranoids", his musical outlet throughout his high school years. They opened shows for both The Remains and The Barbarians, garage band legends who are each featured on "Nuggets, original artyfacts from the first psychedelic era" Rhino R2 75486.
Following high school. Brennan's education continued as lead singer in such well regarded outfits as "The Dirty Rye Band", The West Side Band", "The Martells", and "Push Push". These bands performed in every bar and dive on the east coast. An education indeed.
In 1992 he formed the Dennis Brennan Band and started his solo career, quickly releasing two critically acclaimed recordings on Upstart Records, a division of Rounder. In 2000 he released "Rule #1" on ESCA Records which resulted in glowing reviews from The New Yorker, The Chicago Sun Times, The Boston Phoenix as well as other publications nationwide. These recordings showcase Brennans ability "to not just tip toes into genres, he strips naked and plunges right in." Bill Holmes, AMPLIFIER.
He has been nominated for 4 NEMO awards and has won 2 NEMO awards for "Outstanding Roots Rock Band.
His songs have been aquired for use in films and television, notably the movies "Copland", "The Matthew Shepard Story","Clockwatchers", and "Loveland".
He and his band have just finished a nine month residency at Cambridge's legendary nightspot The Lizard Lounge.
A new recording is due to be released in the fall of 2006 on the Hi & Dry label. It will combine both live recordings and new studio recordings.
- "Engagement" 2006 (HI-N-DRY)
- "Sugar Falls/Cherry Ball Blues" w/ Iodine Brothers 2002 (TuPaul)
- "Rule #1" 2000 (ESCA)
- "Iodine In The Wine " 1997 (Upstart)
- "Jack In The Pulpit" 1995 (Upstart)
- "Can't Wait" w/ Push Push 1989 (Tone Cool)
"Lonesome, ornery and great."
--Peter Guralnick, author DREAM BOOGIE, The Triumph of Sam Cooke and LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS, The Rise of Elvis Presley.
“Rule No. 1 (Esca) stretches nuanced lyrics tightly over elemental rock and roll frames. Bits of Tom Petty pop up in the opening track, ‘I Got My Own’; elsewhere, Brennan recalls such angry young Brits as Graham Parker and Joe Jackson... in a season where designated roots rock messiahs are coasting on less than stellar work, Brennan’s latest release deserves attention.”
– Ben Greenman/The New Yorker
“Comes on strong and packs a punch... Rule No.1 makes good on the flashes of brilliance on his two previous efforts, Jack-In-The-Pulpit and Iodine in the Wine (Upstart/Rounder).”
– Brett Milano/Boston Phoenix
“Brennan has just released a sterling set of tunes, Rule No. 1 (Esca), on which all of his strengths as a singer-songwriter come into full focus. When he sings of broken promises or words left unspoken, you feel the heartbreak and you sympathize...The truth is never in black and white but always in the shadows... music is melodic and nuanced...seducing you with understated grace.”
– Ken Capobianco/CNC News Group
“A rootsy, hard-edged rocker with the barroom soul of the pre-Woodstock Graham Parker and the unsparing insight of a working class poet.”
– Chicago Sun-Times
“Writes and performs exceptional, roots-aware rock songs... with a personal fervor.”
– Paul Robicheau/Boston Globe
“Last year Dennis Brennan released Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which was the year‘s best blue-collar rock album even if it was largely ignored...Iodine in the Wine... reaffirm[s] the notion that he’s one of the most underrated roots-rockers around.”
– Washington Post
“That a talent like Brennan can stay relatively unknown is one of the travesties of the biz, but it also makes his music special for those lucky enough to find it”
– Stereo Review
“Brennan... has his hands full as both a romantic and a working man ingrappling with an unsmiling fate. Even at his most downbeat, though, he suggests greater possibilities through the ripping conviction of his music, the intelligence of his poetry and the passionate strength of his vocals.”
– Chicago Sun-Times
“Dennis Brennan plays rough without ever sacrificing the beauty of a song just to prove how tough he is.”
– St. Louis Dispatch