Between his bright red hair and his 6-foot, 5-inch height, folk singer Brett Dennen stands out in a crowd.
The 1997 Oakdale High School graduate has gained a devoted national following with his soft, uplifting melodies, drawing him comparisons to Jack Johnson.
"I might not be a worldwide-famous musician, but I definitely have my fans in every city," he said in a phone interview from his Santa Monica home. "I have my fans who are pretty dedicated followers that know all the words and know all the people in my band."
He's coming home to Oakdale on Christmas Eve and will spend a week visiting family and friends before performing a New Year's Eve concert in the Bay Area at Oakland's Fox Theater.
People who attend should expect to get up and move, he said.
"We're planning on a lot of audience participation," he said, explaining that he wants people to sing and dance with him. "We want it to be a wild, fun time and have people go all out. It's New Year's Eve."
Dennen, 30, has been touring around the country off and on for the past five years. He released three studio albums — his self-titled debut ('04), "So Much More" ('06) and "Hope for the Hopeless" ('08). His music has been featured on TV shows including "Grey's Anatomy" and "House," and he has appeared on late shows with Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno and David Letterman.
He tries to be sincere and encouraging in his music. "This is my contribution to the world," Dennen said. "It's going to live a lot longer than I'm going to live. I want it to be positive and have a lot of meaning."
Dennen likes trying new things at his concerts and just had audience members participate in a white elephant gift exchange at a holiday concert in Los Angeles. While not everyone understood what he was doing and only about half the people joined in, Dennen said he thought it was a success.
Those who did do the exchange seemed to like it. Plus, he thought it wasn't a bad idea to get audience members talking to one another.
"You never know what can happen from people meeting each other," he said.
He decorated the stage with Christmas lights and poinsettias and came out with a Santa hat on.
"There's something nice and cheesy about holidays," he said.
He has fond memories of celebrating the holidays in Oakdale, including getting a Christmas tree from Waggoner Tree Farm near Knights Ferry and watching his mom make wreaths from branches off a redwood tree in the family's front yard.
Dennen said his personal life today is happy but quiet.
"I don't go to parties all the time," he said. "I don't have a girlfriend or anything right now. I'm not a ladies man. I'm happy to go on dates with people any time, but I'm not the swingin' party type."
Right now, he's concentrating on plans for his new album. He plans to head to a cabin in Virginia in February to record it and then release the CD sometime later in the year.
"It's a little more upbeat, it's danceable, with Latin rhythms," he said. While "So Much More" and "Hope for the Hopeless" were about his thoughts about the world, his next CD will focus inward and will be about his emotions and feelings.
Dennen is interested in possibly playing a valley concert after the album comes out. He said it isn't a lack of love for his hometown that has kept him away for so long. All his best friends live in Modesto and Oakdale and he would love to play a show in the area.
"I never know where to play or what to do there," he said.
But he added that maybe it's good that he has taken his time figuring out a way to play for locals.
"The longer I wait, the more of a homecoming it will be," he said.