ENGAGEMENT: The New CD
by Steve Morse
(SEE ALSO: Dennis' personal notes on Engagement)
Boston has a music legacy that needs no introduction. Think of Aerosmith, 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, Session Americana) 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