VIDEO: Dennis Brennan, "After the Ball"
Dennis Brennan isn’t much into blowing his own horn, and any questions about his local-legend status are likely to be met with an embarrassed shrug. But there is one thing that has him jazzed: over the past week he’s heard tracks from his new Engagement (Hi-N-Dry) both on WBOS-FM and on WMBR’s Late Risers Club. The former is no surprise: the adult-contemporary station has been in his corner for a good decade. But if college radio is discovering him too, then he’s finally grabbing the kids. “It’s nice to be appreciated by different people,” he says, nursing a martini at Christopher’s. “But I love that because it’s so friggin’ weird.”
But it’s been live shows, not albums or radio, that have lately built his reputation. Brennan — who comes to the Lizard Lounge for a weekend-long CD-release party May 18 and 19 — has been on the circuit since the ’80s, playing with the Martells and then the power-pop combo Push Push, at the time one of the few credible Boston bands in the Costello/Replacements vein. (Legend has it they lost points in the 1985 Rumble for playing a cover, the Box Tops’ “Cry like a Baby.”) With Push Push Brennan wrote “This Kind of Love,” still one of the catchiest songs in local rock history. Only sheer bad luck — and perhaps his refusal to delete “fuck” from the lyric — can account for its not being a hit.
Beginning roughly 11 years ago — the time of his Upstart/Rounder solo debut, Jack in the Pulpit — Brennan and an ever-changing line-up began doing local residencies, first at Toad in Porter Square and then at the Independent in Union Square. After a couple of years, word got around: the sets were getting more freewheeling, a pair of hot-shot guitarists (Duke Levine and Kevin Barry) had joined the band, and local luminaries (usually Peter Wolf) were likely to sit in. By the time the residencies moved to the Lizard Lounge, two years ago, Brennan had found his groove and then some. His music was encompassing country and deep soul; the sets had any number of non-obvious covers, the session hot shots had jelled into a real band, and he was making the place feel like roadhouse heaven.
“What happened is, I played a lot,” he says with typical understatement. “I had no choice — I didn’t want to be a cover band, so I started out doing what I’d written. Playing every week, keeping it fresh — that was a big part of it. People maybe came by to have dinner, but they started staying for the music.” The residencies (which he’s put on hold for a time) did fuel his move from straight-out power pop to a wider-ranging and rootsier approach. Brennan still doesn’t allow himself even to listen to Costello, John Hiatt, or any other contemporaries he might be compared with. “If I listen to anything modern, it will be something that’s a long way from what I do. I made a decision years ago to stay away from the people who come from the same gene pool that I do. Why not go back to the source material instead, so you can find out what’s really yours?”