Brett Dennen seems a perfect pop star for the "American Idol" age: His charisma as a performer disguises the blandness of his songs, and his odd appearance gives him instant underdog appeal. His meandering but winning set at Jammin' Java in Vienna on Monday night was a tribute to the mysterious grace and confidence of which stars are made, because there's certainly nothing special about his music. It's the kind of sunny ersatz jam-folk that could just easily be found in the throats of Jack Johnson or John Mayer or a half-dozen other soft-focus, junior-varsity troubadours.
But Dennen is a more intriguing package: He has the doughy, shapeless body of someone in the throes of a particularly cruel adolescence. A Muppet-like shag of red hair frames his face. His voice is squeaky and feminine -- eerily close to Tracy Chapman's. When he's singing, you can't take your eyes off him.
Dennen opened the show with the standard-issue lament "Ain't No Reason," from his 2006 "So Much More" album, and closed nearly two hours later with the exultant "Blessed," from his 2005 self-titled debut. In between came lots of guitar tuning and a negotiation with some overzealous dancers who rebelled against the venue's ill-advised decision to place rows of chairs in front of the stage at kneecap-crushing, back-twisting intervals -- "the chairs create a vibe, and we have to respect that vibe," Dennen said, speaking out, presumably, in favor of sitters' rights. Backing up Dennen were Steve Adams on bass and Randy Schwartz on drums, both better than solid, if a bit too eager given the laid- way- back vibe of Dennen's material.
Sara Bareilles's soulful opening set was a powerful reminder of how great it is when the songs are as good as the singer. Her major-label debut, "Little Voice," is due for release later this year, and fans of Norah Jones or Sheryl Crow would be well advised to seek her out.
-- Chris Klimek
Onstage the Aquarium confronts the audience with a mindset decision: Are we watching a rock concert, a movie or both? The local organ-and-drums duo set up a well-worn film projector to flash footage during its set. On the Black Cat's backstage Tuesday night, a reel of straight-outta-Marlin Perkins images of daily life in the Andes fulfilled the visual component, and for the most part, those visuals meshed well with the grainy analog swing of the compositions.
When the film became distracting, it was easy enough to focus on the unique post-punk mood music -- Jason Hutto's Wurlizter organ careening over the hard kick of Laura Harris's drum kit. Which essentially means that the 45-minute show was a success: The duo provided both backing music and a feature performance, sufficiently easing the burden of choice placed on the crowd to begin with.
The Aquarium left at home the sumptuous pulses of its self-titled debut album. Instead, punk sinew showed through, driven by Harris's bruising beat. "Golden Pyramid" and "Maxxo Sesh" were given a speedy battering; the whirl of "Channel 9" and the ominous thrum of "White House" (which echoed another organ-driven duo, Suicide) were the aural equivalent of the impromptu jamming of the Jordan Kitt's sales staff after someone spiked the coffee with acid. That Hutto and Harris conducted the whole affair with the offhand air of a spirited rehearsal -- opening and closing with loosely arranged new-songs-in-progress -- only added to the set's rough-hewn charm.
-- Patrick Foster