“I shut down in the heat,” Brett Dennen joked during a panel, just over two hours before he and his band took the Bonnaroo stage on Friday afternoon. With the smothering Tennessee heat an annual Bonnaroo attendee, the temperature is something on the minds of both fans and artists at the festival. Still, the 97–degree heat did not stop Dennen from dancing, belting and crooning his way through a 13-song set tailor-made for a summer afternoon.
Dennen opened the set with “What’s the Secret?,” a finger-picking track off of his new album Por Favor. The crowd remained reserved during the opening number, watching Dennen and casually swaying along to the relaxing guitar.
Dennen relied heavily on Por Favor for the first half of his set, playing five songs from the record, which dropped three weeks prior on May 20. He followed “What’s the Secret?” with Por Favor tracks “Bonfire,” “Cassidy,” “Another Life” and “Stand Up for It.”
“Bonfire” was an easygoing acoustic number, a perfect track for the many fans camped out on their blankets under the stage’s nearby shade. Dennen channeled lineup-mates Dead & Company on “Cassidy,” where the retro keys created a sound reminiscent of the Grateful Dead. He then traded in Garcia for Marley with “Stand Up For It,” a reggae-tinged track that coaxed pockets of the crowd to get their feet moving.
While some of Dennen’s falsetto notes lacked the same finesse showcased on his records, the singer-songwriter performed the new songs with a level of emotion that seemed to entrance the audience at points. Por Favor finds Dennen embracing a more intimate sound than previous recordings, and the crowd remained largely subdued during the new tracks, listening intently to Dennen’s songwriting.
Yet the calmness of the crowd could not be mistaken for disinterest. Cheers echoed throughout the tent whenever Dennen addressed his fans. They were perhaps the loudest when Dennen spoke to the special environment that is Bonnaroo.
“One thing I love about music is that there’s something really powerful that happens when a bunch of people get together to share an experience,” Dennen said, then motioning to the crowd that was expanding out into the festival grounds. “Especially when it’s a group of like-minded individuals.”
During the second half of the show, the folk-pop singer-songwriter worked his way through his catalog of hits. The familiar songs provided a spark to the crowd, who began mouthing the words and throwing up their hands. Many fans got the moment they were waiting for when Dennen broke out his folk hit “Ain’t No Reason” midway through the set. He then changed pace with “Wild Child,” which saw the audience belting alongside Dennen, proudly proclaiming the song’s hook of “I’m a Wild Child.”
As he played through his hits, Dennen danced alongside the fans, moving his microphone across the stage and singing to even the farthest corners of the tent. Each time he broke out a small, endearingly corny dance move, the crowd would erupt in applause and shout a smattering of calls like “We love you Brett.”
Dennen later dropped his guitar to perform the Hope For The Hopeless track “Make Me Crazy.” The audience gave Dennen a chance to regain his breath on the catchy “Comeback Kid,” taking over the chorus’s vocals as Dennen strummed along.
With the set nearing the end, a visibly exhausted Dennen sincerely addressed the audience that had braved the afternoon heat for him.
“I appreciate you all,” he said, the audience drowning out his words to near inaudibility. “It’s been a while since I was at Bonnaroo, and you’re making it feel like home.”
Dennen then closed the night with “Blessed,” a cut off of his debut album.
“Do you want to celebrate?” he asked the audience while drawing out the song’s final chorus. As if their reaction was not enough of an answer, Dennen followed up his own question, announcing, “The party’s just getting started.”
With two more days of music to come, Dennen is right. It is just the beginning of the Bonnaroo party. But with cheery, folk-pop tunes on a hot summer afternoon, Dennen gave Friday’s fans a pretty fitting welcome.