Say you're a music lover and you've got a kid. You want to get them into music, but you don't want to subject yourself to the tinny pop and tiny playlist on Radio Disney or the preachy, utterly condescending ministrations of the likes of (shudder) Barney. What to do?
Go to a Dan Zanes show, that's what. Zanes is that rare breed who doesn't make "children's music," but instead makes music that children and their parents both dig.
Many people who now have young children have been digging Zanes a long time. Back in the late '80s, he and his brother Warren fronted the Del Fuegos, a Boston-based garage-rock band that won a cult following and plenty of critical acclaim. The Del Fuegos came close to hitting the big time in the Fabulous Thunderbirds-led Reagan-era roots-rock boomlet but didn't quite make it. They released their last album in 1989. In 1995, Zanes re-emerged as a solo artist; at about that same time, he and his wife had a daughter, and that changed everything, from the way he perceived bands on stage to the way he directed his own career.
"I never felt any pressure to be a cool parent and turn my daughter on to any vintage rock and roll or anything like that," he says from his home in Brooklyn. "But I did want her to grow up in the house I wanted to but didn't grow up in. And that was one that is filled with music."
By that, he doesn't mean one filled with cool CDs and vintage vinyl. He means a house full of live music -- picking parties in the den, lullabies in the bedroom, work songs outside and sing-alongs in the kitchen. Oddly enough for a guy with as much gigging experience as he had, Zanes learned the potency of live music best through his daughter.
"I think it really comes down to the live experience -- you've got to get out and hear people play it," he says. "Putting in a CD -- mine or anybody else's -- is a pale substitute."
Zanes arrived at that conclusion after taking his daughter to some concerts by the harbor in the Big Apple by a group called the New York Packet, a sea chantey/maritime music combo. "She would watch them play for an hour or two -- just these people in a room with folding chairs, no lights, no sound, and be totally captivated by it. She's not particularly drawn to music, but these were just good narrative songs, good call-and-response songs, and then I realized that she would never get into a CD of this."
By that point, Zanes had already started a new career -- as a singer of music that children can share with their parents and vice versa. His first children's CD, 2001's Rocket Ship Beach, introduced his blueprint: Take a bunch of venerable pop standards and traditional folk and country tunes, add in a few originals and some guest stars (a list that has included, over the years, Sheryl Crow, Debbie Harry, Angelique Kidjo, Lou Reed, Aimee Mann and Philip Glass), and play the music in a laid-back, engaging manner that never condescends.
Zanes says he has no trouble composing material or selecting covers. "The deal I would make with kids is that I wouldn't sing any songs about romantic love or sexual love -- things that wouldn't have any meaning for three- or four-year-olds. And the deal I would make with parents is that I wouldn't sing any songs about brushing your teeth or learning to eat with a fork."
And in making those deals, Zanes has discovered whole new realms of possibility. "Oddly enough, when I started thinking about this and stopped writing songs about all my old girlfriends, it all opened up for me," he says. "I'd been in such a narrow track musically, and now it's gotten so broad and exciting, which is I think the irony, 'cause a lot of people think that all the songs are about how to get dressed in the morning. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but that was never my interest. I was always looking for the shared experience, where my daughter and I could listen to things together and could both be equally excited by it. I always thought. 'Why can't that be the case?' and I was certainly not alone in that. And that's the way we do our shows."
Zanes's band is about half male and half female, a mix he has come to see, through his daughter, as vital. "Having a daughter made me realize that I didn't want to be doing a show and have these kids look up and see all guys on the stage, because that's so much a part of our culture in terms of music-making," he says. "My daughter doesn't get interested in it when she sees me playing, but when she sees [bandmate] Barbara Brousal playing, my daughter immediately starts looking around for her guitar or ukulele and starts going after it."
Zanes also sees his music as sneakily educational, which any parent can tell you is the best way to teach. On his new album, House Party, he included the old train song "Wabash Cannonball," a tune that today is apt to inspire as many questions from youngsters as from foot-stomps. "Those songs really capture kids' imaginations, and I'm not an educator, but I think those songs really do help you learn something about the world. I think that's a nice fringe benefit -- you get a bigger worldview by tapping into some of those older songs. I think I'm an entertainer and it all has to be fun, but if you learn something along the way, that's incredible."
Fun is something Zanes is all about. He says that he and his bandmates had fun in the Del Fuegos in the early days, but it all became less so with each "next level" attained. "I know the wall got bigger between the band and the audience, and as it went up, we lost a lot, traded away something," he remembers. "It was very communal in the beginning -- everybody was just going to watch each other play -- but later it didn't really count as a show unless people got up and danced. They had to really throw themselves into it for it to even feel like something."
After the Del Fuegos broke up, Zanes attended a fiddle festival in West Virginia. In that part of the country, there's less of a wall between musicians and fans, as many people there still play music at home. Zanes recalled how even the biggest names in bluegrass and old-time music -- Ralph Stanley and the like -- would make time for their fans after their sets. There were few barriers between the entertainers and the entertained. He was also struck by how so few people elsewhere in America made their own music.
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Inspired by all that, and by his daughter's keen reception to the New York Packet concerts on the harbor, Zanes's career now has another sideline. "Every year I'm gonna do a side project CD of just purely traditional folk music of some sort, and the first one we did was all maritime music," he says of the CD Sea Music, which is not geared specifically toward children. "The packaging's a little different -- we have lyrics, and chords, and it's really for if you've got a family band or a guitar at home. I'm really just trying to appeal to my audience, people that are really open to home music-making, and this is just a way to bring more songs into their collections. They're easy to sit and play and super-soulful. And kids have really been embracing it, which I didn't really expect."
Going from listening to CDs to attending shows with your kids is a relatively small step. Now Zanes would like to see parents take another, seemingly more daunting one: for them to actually make music with their children, regardless of whether they have any training. In short, he wants you to try this at home.
"Kids will easily get on board with all that stuff, but it's the grown-ups that tend to hold it back, but I'm optimistic, and it seems that it's so very important that people get together and play music at this time in history," he says. "We're all just so fragmented. But the thing that's nice about it for me is that it really is so much fun. And that's part of my rap about it all, is how much fun it is. Not that it's a good idea, but it's a fun idea. The records and the shows are examples of just how fun it is to hang out and play music with your friends."
Dan Zanes appears at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 24, at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway. For information, call 713-223-8346. Zanes will also perform a benefit for the Becker Early Childhood Center at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 25, at Congregation Emanu El, 1500 Sunset Boulevard. For information, call 713-535-6400.