Nationally known folk-pop singer and Oakdale native Brett Dennen has played countless venues all over the country and he thinks Modesto's Gallo Center for the Arts is one of the best.
The performer, who returns to the center March 16 for his second annual benefit for Camp Jack Hazard, said he hadn't visited the facility until his concert there last year.
"The theater is amazing," said the 33-year-old in a recent telephone interview. "I was just pleased that one of the nicest venues in the country happens to be in Modesto. When I was walking in the hallway, seeing posters and photos of the acts that have come through, it's very impressive. People need to realize they have an incredible venue right in their back yard."
Dennen, who now lives in Santa Monica, has released four studio albums over the past decade, with 2011's "Loverboy" as the most recent release. His second LP 2006's "So Much More" spent months on the Billboard Heatseeker chart and led to rocker John Mayer asking Dennen to open for him on tour.
Dennen also has collaborated with Natalie Merchant, Dave Matthews and Jason Mraz and has had his music featured on the TV shows "Scrubs," "Grey's Anatomy," "Parenthood," "Brothers and Sisters," "House" and more.
Dennen's Gallo Center show this year will be with Oakdale Americana band The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, featuring some musicians who are old friends. He went to high school with a couple of the band members and has jammed with others.
The two acts each will perform their own sets and will do a few numbers together. Dennen will perform an acoustic set alone with his guitar. He is in the midst of recording a new album in Nashville (due for release in summer or fall) and likely will try out some of the material on the audience.
"I will probably want to try out some of the songs on the crowd to see if I learn anything about the songs see what people are into, what they're not into and gain insight on what's happening in the music," he said.
Dennen also will play some of his older songs and, possibly, a few popular songs from camp. Last year, he played a few songs in response to persistent requests of camp veterans in the audience.
Camp Jack Hazard, located in the High Sierra, is close to Dennen's heart because he attended as a camper and worked there as a counselor for years.
The camp was founded in the 1920s by Jack and Buena Hazard to give a wilderness experience to Modesto youth and was run for many years by the now-defunct YMCA of Stanislaus County. The core of the camp experience is a three-day backpack trip into the wilderness, where campers make due with whatever supplies they can carry in.
"I experienced my first case of homesickness there," Dennen said. "I learned how to play guitar there, I learned real quickly that I have a love for the outdoors and the mountains. Camp was a place for me to explore and be more confident in the outdoors and to become a leader in the outdoors. I learned how to be a musician and, above all, to be a good person. There was so much character development at Camp Jack Hazard and an emphasis on values what it means to be a good person. It's hard to separate a lot of those things about myself from camp."
The music skills Dennen learned at camp have led him into interesting experiences all over the world. He and the artist Milow recently contributed a cover of "Annie's Song" to the upcoming album "The Music is You: A Tribute to John Denver," due for release on ATO Records April 2.
He learned about Denver from singing the artist's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" at camp. While he's not a huge John Denver fan, Dennen respects him as an American musical icon and said he was honored to be invited to be a part of the tribute album.
In November and December, Dennen joined rockers G. Love, Cy Curnin and members of Gin Blossoms and Fastball in "Everest Rocks," a hike through Nepal to Mount Everest's base camp, where they performed a concert to help cancer-fighting charity Love Hope Strength. Dennen said it was one of the most difficult, emotionally draining experiences of his life.
Dennen has spent a lot of time in the Sierra and thought he knew a lot about mountains, but he said the Sierra are nothing compared to the towering peaks in Nepal. While the Sierra get up to 14,000-15,000 feet, he hiked up to nearly 19,000 feet in Nepal.
"You're like walking on the moon up there," Dennen said. "There's no trees for shelter, there's nothing to hide behind the wind and the sun. It's brutal. It's one of those experiences, I don't know what it means yet."
Dennen said he was sick and disoriented from the high altitude. "I did a concert at 18,500 feet and I don't really remember any of it," he said. "I'm happy to be back on flat ground and I still love the mountains, but I don't think the Himalayas are for me."
For now, he is looking forward to reconnecting with family, friends and fans at the Gallo Center for the Arts.
"I want any fans I have in Modesto to come and see me play and enjoy the music," he said. "They can know their money is going to a good cause."
WHAT: Brett Dennen and The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit
WHEN: 7 p.m. March 16
WHERE: Rogers Theater, Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto
TICKETS: $30-$100; benefits Camp Jack Hazard
CALL: (209) 338-2100