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October 26, 2006

heading: Campfire Music, The Hum by Bob Doran, photo of Brett Dennen

Young singer songwriter Brett Dennen's star seems to be rising. Summer found him playing festivals from Bonnaroo and High Sierra to Bumbershoot, and touring with Sheryl Crow and John Mayer. He was supposed to release his second album, So Much More, last week, but it's been delayed since Warner Brothers decided to take over distribution. Those who were paying close attention saw him sell out the Jambalaya in September in a last-minute show that had no advertising.

When I caught up with him this weekend, he was taking a rare day off -- rare because even though his music career is going full bore, he still has another job, one that seems close to his heart. Since he was a 10-year-old, he's been going to summer camp or working at summer camps. First it was Jack Hazard Camp in the Sierras, not too far from Oakdale, where he was raised.

"I started working there when I was 14," he told me, "and I worked there until I was 22 or 23. Now I work at this other outdoor education camp, The Mosaic Project. I just got back from there last night."

The camp's website calls him "program director and resident rock star," which he explains is "a fancy name for music director."

"We sing a lot of songs, but unlike other camps, where songs are mostly for entertainment value, our songs are for education. The Mosaic Project is not really a camp, it's a school disguised as a camp."

The Project's stated mission is working "towards a peaceful future by reaching children in their formative years. We unite young children of diverse backgrounds, provide them with essential skills to thrive in an increasingly diverse society and empower them to strive for peace."

Brett explained the method, bringing 4th and 5th graders together three classes at a time, with one from a low-income school, one from a middle-income area and one from the upper crust. "We mix the kids in different cabins and learning groups. It's all about learning how to connect with people from different backgrounds."

His role since the camp started in 2000: Getting them to sing together. "We try to put the curriculum into music. We use music to teach. All the lessons are in catchy little jingly songs." The lessons and message? "At the basic level it's about building communities, but we also have a non-violence curriculum, one on being aware of stereotyping and breaking down prejudice and discrimination. We touch on assertiveness and being allied with others. All this is on a kid level, dealing with bullying and teasing and who's friends with who, who gets left out, but then we draw lines comparing it to stuff that happens on a global level with wars. We spend a day touching on the interconnectedness of all humans and everything on the planet, on our connection to the past and to the future. We look at issues like: who's got the money; who's got the power, who's got the privilege. It's pretty amazing and really powerful."

While he obviously uses a different level of language, Brett touches on some of the same sorts of issues in the songs he writes for grownups. "All my experience with the Mosaic Project and working in summer camps shaped me and the way I relate to the world -- being wacky and wild, loving music, wanting to express love for the world and change the world. And when I perform on stage, I'm still the same person that I am when I play for 5th graders. As far as what I sing about, it's the same stuff, maybe a bit more poetic, expressed in a way that adults might understand that kids don't. But it's more or less the same thing."

I should note that the songs on Brett's two solo albums (he's featured in a CD of Mosaic Project songs) are not all message songs. In fact, many are love songs, and good ones. Women love him, maybe in part because he still looks like a oversized teenager even though he's 26.

When he played at the Jam the crowd was maybe 2-to-1 female to male. I'm guessing it will be similar when he plays this Thursday, Oct. 26, at HSU's Kate Buchanan Room, a show billed as "Rock Against 85," sponsored by the campus club Vox: Voices for Planned Parenthood to raise awareness about the proposition that would force teens to get parental permission to get an abortion.

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It's a busy week what with Halloween and all -- but even before the costumed madness begins, there are too many choices, too many shows. Take this Thursday: The same night Brett Dennen's at HSU, poet Maya Angelou is across campus reading her work and stirring souls at the Van Duzer. Downtown at Humboldt Brews you have stellar guitarists Paul Barerre and Fred Tackett, best known as the main men in Little Feat. Meanwhile, over at Mazzotti's, it's those rulers of Cali-reggae, Groundation, up from Sonoma with a new CD, Upon the Bridge, another fine collection of irie tunes with a jazzy feel.

Reggae fans may be torn that night, since Jah Warrior Shelter Hi Fi Sound System is up from the Bay, bringing the positive dancehall reggae vibes with DJ Irie Dole and the Brooklyn dread, Rocker T, on the mic.

At the Mateel Thursday it's a blues version of the monthly SoHum Community Jam featuring Oklahoma blues man D.C. Minner and Blues on the Move, plus assorted solo artists and SoHum's BlueThorn leading a jam session.

Thursday at the Green Life Evolution Center in Blue Lake, it's a book release party for Heather C. Flores, author of Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community, which as you might guess discusses community gardens and the importance of vegetables. She's on the road from Oregon with The Underscore Orkestra, a "vaudeville gypsy acoustic swing band traveling in a veggie-oil powered bus."

Since the Halloween ghouls night falls on a Tuesday this year there are lots of pre-holiday weekend shows. The Absynth Quintet are at the Jambalaya Friday, Oct. 27, for a "99¢ Costume Party," with proceeds benefiting the Absynth Quintet Basic Needs Fund. The aforementioned Heather C. Flores is a friend of A.Q. drummer Tofu, so she'll be there with her book and probably The Underscore Orkestra too.

Over at Mazzotti's it's another Passion Presents show, this time with New Monsoon, a seven-piece neo-psychedelic jamband from San Francisco following that city's long tradition as a hotbed for psychedelia, channeling the vibes from the Summer of Love. Sharing the bill: Greensky Bluegrass, a band from Michigan who were winners of the 2006 Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition. They're apparently hanging around town for awhile -- at least until Halloween, when they play at Humboldt Brews.

Saturday at Mazzotti's it's Northern Nights, with hip hop etc. from the Bay Area and DJ Jacques and Smoke 1 spinning. The host is a cat named Dee Cee, an old friend of mine who helped publish a local music mag called Rhythmic Review back in the day.

Fans of the monster metal trio Dragged by Horses should not miss their show at the Alibi Saturday, Oct. 28, since (at least according to T. McNally) it's the last time you'll hear the band in it's current form. It seems the horses are dragging the members in different directions, with drummer Matt Marek letting go so as not to be torn asunder. Time for a heavy metal drummer ad on Craigslist? Joining them for the last hurrah, Floating Goat, a killer stoner metal outfit from S.F.

The Pearl rocks that same Saturday with Que La Chinga and The Ravens. The Pearly rockin' continues Sunday, Oct. 29, with No Doctors, an experimental psyche rock quartet originally out of Chicago, now living in West Oakland. Eureka's The Neptune Society opens.

There's various things going on for Halloween proper (Tuesday night) -- stuff for the kids and otherwise (see our calendar). Action in the clubs includes The Rubberneckers and Trash `n' Roll rocking at the Jambalaya. Meanwhile in McKinleyville, The Pine Box Boys, those dark masters of the murder ballad and other stringy American music, play at Six Rivers, where it's a pirate-themed party for some reason. (Wouldn't undertakers be more appropriate?)

Fans and students of slap bass guitar may want to check out Chris Matheos' "Bass Guitar Seminar" on Monday, Oct 30, at Arcata Music. The Berklee-trained Matheos, author of more than a dozen books for renowned music publisher Mel Bay, will demonstrate slap technique and jam a bit with Dan Perez on guitar and Nate Kaplan on drums, then answer your questions. It starts at 6 p.m. and it's free.

A note came this morning from Sara in the Drag City Records p. r. office, suggesting, "Perhaps you've listened to the new Bonnie `Prince' Billy album The Letting Go and have fallen in love with the enchanting female vocals on such gorgeous songs like `Cursed Sleep.' `Who possesses that enchanting voice?' you may have asked yourself."

Now, this was kind of a rhetorical question, since Sara sent me the disc, the latest from the godfather of freak folk, Will Oldham, formerly of the Palace Brothers, aka Bonnie `Prince' Billy, and she mentioned the fact that The Letting Go prominently features Dawn McCarthy of the S.F.-based band Faun Fables. And yes, her harmonies provide a compelling new element to Oldham's dark love songs, adding a lightness, a yang to his yin, if you will. It's like they were made for each other. You may remember that Dawn was featured in this column back in May when she was touring with her album/multi-media show, The Transit Rider: A Song Cycle, and played at Synapsis Gallery. Here's the good news from Sara: Faun Fables is opening for B."P." Billy when he plays at Synapsis next week, and she will undoubtedly join him on stage. Now the bad news: If this is the first you've heard about the barely advertised show, you're out of luck. The place ain't that big and it's sold out.

Couple more things: What's up with the Arcata building inspectors busting Muddy's Hot Cup on a Friday, when they know there's no one to check off their work until Monday? Finally, a correction: I had the date wrong for that Trey Anastasio show, it's Dec. 6, at the Muni.

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