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Brett Cain is big. Six-feet-eight-inches-and-360-pounds big.
And Brett Cain has big stories. The kind gained from four straight years on the road, playing music in clubs, bars, football stadiums and outdoor festivals, either headlining or opening for everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Jerry Garcia Band.
And Brett Cain also has big talent. Scary-big talent. The kind of talent people (well, his manager, Johnny Mez, at any rate) say comes around once in a lifetime. Then again, a giant tortoise can live 175 years and a mayfly checks out in a few hours, so that's hardly the most definitive of statements. But this much is indisputable: watch him perform and you know you're experiencing something different.
It's not just because the West Virginia boy looks like he should be playing offensive guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Or that he puts his own spin on a mind-bending range of covers, from George Michael's "Faith" to the Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl." Or that his own songs reveal a writer of obvious talent and depth, or even that he's a ferociously adept amalgamator of American pop music, from blues and soul to Top 40. (Watching him perform recently, someone who'd been drinking—okay, maybe it was me—swore they had a vision of Louis Armstrong waking up ravenous one day and eating Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jack Black and all the Barenaked Ladies, topping it with soufflé of Dave Matthews.)
No, what truly makes Cain such a refreshing change of musical pace is far simpler than his talent and presence: he laughs. All the time. During gigs, during songs, during conversations. It's part of his utter lack of pretension. His ambition and dreams may be as big as his persona, but onstage, what you get isn't ironic indifference or rock-star-in-training bullshit—it's exuberance and unbridled passion. And it doesn't matter if he's performing an original song such as his frighteningly radio-friendly ode to life, "Make Life," or the theme song to The Jeffersons.
"I like the high energy of soul music," says Cain, who knows that pop music existed long before Christina Aguilera and Blink-182 and that musicians such as James Brown and Van Morrison used to write songs that "lifted people up instead of always bringing them down. I'd like to try to bring back a positive message to music. So much of it is negative and boo-hoo."
That's not to imply he's all smiley faces and candy canes. Think of it like the blues: whether Etta James or Ray Charles was singing about the sweet rapture of love or crushing heartbreak, it was all about feeling and experience.
"Everything I do is spawned from emotions I've felt and things I've gone through, whether it's anger or pain or whatever," said Cain. "I don't hear a lot of that in music today. I think it's at an all-time low. The independent stuff is doing the right thing, but nobody else seems to be."
And what's the right thing?
"Be true to yourself. Don't lip-synch. Learn how to really perform and actually come up with a creative thought of your own."
Obligatory background digression: He grew up in Weirton, in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. He weighed 220 pounds in sixth grade ("They wouldn't let me play sports because they thought I'd hurt the other kids"). He was a self-professed theater fag from that time on. Having grown up around guitar pickers and musicians, Cain began performing music locally in high school. He studied musical theater at West Liberty State College for three years before heading out on the road. Cain moved to California last October to be with his girlfriend and to try out the Left Coast music scene, which wasn't easy at first.
"I couldn't get a gig here," said Cain, who's had one paying job his entire life: playing music. "They'd laugh at me—they couldn't believe that I could do what I do. I was applying for jobs as a bouncer and flying back to West Virginia to play for 20 days in order to make enough money to live out here."
That's changed. He's got regular gigs in Los Angeles and is developing a hearty following in the Paris of North Orange County (that would be Fullerton), playing four-hour shows to standing-room-only audiences at the Stadium Tavern and Red Cloud.
The Orange resident says he loves the place and the people. But he's not so keen on a lot of the local music.
"Where I grew up, everybody played music," Cain says. "You were surrounded by it. So if you played [live], you had to be decent. Here it's like some guys just picked up a guitar last week. If they were in my hometown, they'd be laughed offstage."
And you could bet they'd hear Brett Cain's laugh.
Brett Cain at Stadium Tavern, 305 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 447-4200. Wed., 9:30 p.m. Free. cALL FOR AGE RESTRICTIONS.