For Thomas Brenneck, an unlikely life in music has led to some serendipitous encounters. The Menahan Street Band guitarist and accomplished session musician was born in 1981 to parents working in the education sector. According to him, he’s the only artist in his family for “as far back as everybody knows.” Raised on a healthy diet of radio pop and classic rock, Brenneck picked up the guitar by a fluke. “When I was in 4th or 5th grade, my grandpa mentioned we had a small acoustic guitar in the attic that my grandma used to play in church,” he recalled from a tour stop in Milwaukee last week. “That kinda set off the whole chain of events.”
In the years since that fateful exchange, Brenneck has made a mighty name for himself in the New York soul circuit. He’s played guitar for Daptone Records staples like Antibalas, The Budos Band, and Menahan. He’s also worked as a session musician for everyone from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Amy Winehouse to Rufus Wainwright and St. Vincent. This Wednesday, November 28, Brenneck and the Menahan Street Band take to the stage at UCSB’s Campbell Hall with the Screaming Eagle of Soul himself, Charles Bradley.
As a white kid growing up in New York in the late 1980s, Brenneck gravitated toward acts like Guns N’ Roses and Queen. He recalled that it was his love of Jimi Hendrix that eventually led him to making soul music. “I was obsessed with Hendrix,” he explained. “Hendrix’s whole background was playing soul music with the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, and a whole bunch of other obscure bands like The Icemen, Rosa Lee Brooks. Being obsessed with him, I tracked down all of the records that he used to play on, and when I heard this stuff, it was incredible. That all turned me on to Curtis Mayfield, and once I started listening to that, I figured out that all Hendrix was trying to do was play like Curtis Mayfield. For me that was it. Once I got into soul music, I realized it was just infinite. Something must have happened in the universe in the 1960s — and not only in America but all over the world. It just exploded.”
It wasn’t long after, at the age of 19, that Brenneck joined up with Antibalas, an Afrobeat band based out of Brooklyn. By 20, he had been recruited to play guitar for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, a gig that Brenneck would keep until the age of 27.
“The Dap-Kings was exciting because it was the first band I was in that was playing soul music,” Brenneck said. “It was underground, except everywhere we went we were selling out clubs. All the other musicians I met started forming these other groups together, like the El Michels Affair, which was most of the guys who are in the Menahan Street Band now.”
With “the crew” firmly in place, Brenneck & Co. landed a studio gig with a then little-known Amy Winehouse. The sessions would eventually go on to become Winehouse’s breakthrough, Back in Black. “Nobody in the world thought that record was going to be so important. We were just happy we were getting paid,” recalled Brenneck. “That was probably the most successful record we’ll ever have to do with, and it had to do with things that were way bigger than us.”
Riding on the high of Back in Black, Brenneck and fellow Dap-King Homer Steinweiss launched Dunham Records in 2006. In 2008, Dunham Studios followed. Currently, Brenneck is splitting his time between touring behind the Menahan Street Band’s latest, The Crossing, and carving out the follow-up to Charles Bradley’s 2011 debut, No Time for Dreaming.
“The new record we’re working on is the most exciting record I’ve ever made, hands down,” Brenneck said of the new Bradley project. “With Charles at the age that he’s at, he’s got a lot to say that he can express through lyrics and song.”
At 64, Bradley may be the most unlikely breakout artist to come out of the aughts. A lifelong construction worker, Bradley spent most of his life singing, but it wasn’t until returning to Brooklyn in 1996 that he started landing club gigs. “The story goes that Charles just knocked on [Daptone Records founder] Gabe [Roth]’s apartment door one day and said, ‘I heard you’re looking for a singer,’” laughed Brenneck. “Gabe brought Charles out to our rehearsal spot in Staten Island, and that was the first time that I ever met him. It was a trip. Charles was the real deal.”
Onstage, Bradley’s presence is nothing short of captivating. His performances, often punctuated with teary-eyed deliveries, cut straight to the bone. And his vocals, emotional and booming, call to mind greats like Otis Redding and James Brown.
“He’s a living, breathing soul musician,” said Brenneck. “When the guy talks, it sounds like a record. I can hardly understand what he’s saying most of the time, but in those first few meetings, he gave us this feeling of credibility. We found an authentic soul man that liked our music.”
Charles Bradley & the Menahan Street Band play UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday, November 28, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.