Denison Witmer at Jammin Java

Folk singer/songwriter Denison Witmer performs at Jammin Java in Vienna, Virginia. Photo: Denison Witmer

VIENNA, Va., April 25, 2013 –Emotionally, there isn’t much space between Denison Witmer and his audience during one of his sets. Witmer is one of the most forthcoming musicians an audience will ever come across, as there are very few intimate details of his life that he seems uncomfortable sharing with anyone who watches him perform.

His recent show at Jammin’ Java almost takes on the form of a confessional, whether he’s playing music or just killing time with the audience while he sets up a new song. This is rather odd, as his songs always take something of a confessional route to begin with. Yet he continues to add to that during his performance. The reason it’s odd? Singer/songwriters who tend to be confessional in their music generally don’t have the same tendency when it comes to chatting with their audience instead letting their music and songs do the talking for them.

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But Denison Witmer just lets everything flow out as it comes to him. Much like his songs, his onstage patter is in reality a stream of conscious dialogue he carries on with his fans. But what’s is that it’s never even close to the realm of controversial. In fact, what he sings and what he talks about is rather basic and mundane stuff that a somewhat less-engaging performer doing the same thing might drain the audience’s energy, especially if he were a down-to-earth, low-key performer like Witmer.

It’s precisely this phenomenon that really made Witmer’s show at Jammin’ Java a successful venture. What his music and audience dialogue touch upon are things that everyone experiences to the point where they don’t really think about on a regular basis. It’s that relatable atmosphere that allows Witmer to connect with the audience, though, and no matter how many times someone’s gone through similar situations, Witmer has a certain nervous energy that spirals from one moment to the next keeping both the performer and his story engaging at all times. Even if someone can predict what he’s going to say next, it’s still a good time to let him tell a story because he can tell it far better than most.

The energy he radiates when interacting with the audience also makes a definite imprint on his songs as well. There’s an understated depth all of his songs as he sings about topics everyone is familiar with in at least some context. It’s a fairly simple production, and everything Witmer plays is subdued as much as possible. He’s never going to be a musician who will be mistaken for attention grabbing or up-tempo, but then that’s part of his appeal.

His songs aren’t complicated, but they still have a way of drawing in the audience with winding storyteller verve. He’s not methodical because he usually chooses songs far too short for that kind of complexity. But the low key nature of his performance style has a way of engrossing the audience to the point where it’s easy to casually sit and drink it all in, nodding knowingly from time to time. It’s a familiar, almost old-time folk style of performing that feels warm and comfortable. That sense is no more apparent when he covers Bry Webb’s “Asa,” which he seamlessly appropriates in order to deliver an emotional bit about his son who carries the same name.

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Unlike his last stop through the DC area, Denison Witmer wasn’t alone this time around. Most of his songs featured pedal steel guitar, and for the few opening songs of the set, he brought out touring mates Noah Gundersen to play along with him. Witmer alone would be suitable and engaging, but this set-up gives him a notably fuller sound which results in a more rounded over all performance.

Like the best singer/songwriters, Denison Witmer wears his heart on his sleeve. So much authenticity bleeds through every moment he’s up on stage that it’s hard to imagine he’s not trying his hardest to connect to the audience by showing them as much of his soul as he possibly can.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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