October 9, 2008

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Welcome to Mr. Zanes’ neighborhood
Dan Zanes and Friends at The Music Hall

By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

Dan Zanes looks like a one-man carnival. With his wild, bushy hair (achieved, he says, through washing it with baking soda) and a suit collection that looks like it came out of a Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors, his look reflects the music he makes — colorful, diverse and, most important of all, fun. Zanes and his band are out to make homemade family music for all, and in the process they’re building their own musical neighborhood where everyone is welcome. On Sunday, Oct. 12, Dan Zanes and Friends will perform as part of the Kids RULE! series at The Music Hall in Portsmouth.

Originally from Exeter, N.H., Zanes was a founding member of the 1980s Boston garage-rock band the Del Fuegos, who released the albums The Longest Day, Boston, Mass, Stand Up, Smoking in the Fields and the hit single, “Don’t Run Wild.” In 1994, he released a solo CD, Cool Down Time, shortly after which Zanes relocated to Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and daughter. It was there that he released 2000’s Rocket Ship Beach, which became an immediate hit with families around the country, though Zanes hadn’t intended to become a family entertainer.

“I really started doing it because I had this sound in my mind that I was after and just couldn’t find it,” he said. “I just play what I want to hear.”

Zanes and his band have created a diverse and extensive musical catalog. His album Catch That Train! won a 2007 Grammy Award for Best Musical Album for Children, and popular artists like Aimee Mann, Lou Reed, Deborah Harry, Sheryl Crow and Roseanne Cash have all contributed to his albums.

“For these musicians, it’s a chance to be heard in an unadorned way,” Zanes said. “They are so generous with their gifts and it’s an opportunity for them to explore musically.”

His previous family albums have explored everything from maritime songs to folk and Caribbean-flavored tunes. The musical explorations continue in Dan Zanes and Friends’ 2008 CD, ¡Nueva York!, a Spanish-language album Zanes says celebrates Latin America and the vibrant culture that comes with immigration.

“The immigration conversation in the country was getting uglier and I decided that I wanted to answer it,” Zanes said. “When I lived in New Hampshire, my window to the world was pretty small and a lot of what I saw of it was through television, which I think is the case for a lot of kids — seeing the world that way can be pretty scary.”

Gathering a group of Latin American musical “friends” including Lila Downs, Daphne Rubin-Vega and The Villa-Lobos brothers, Zanes and his band set about highlighting the positives of having a diverse nation.

“A lot of the places where there is the biggest resistance to immigration are the places that don’t have a lot of diversity,” Zanes said. “I wanted to offer a spirit of collaboration and celebration of the wonderful music that is out there in the world.”

“If there’s one thing that we do as a band is that we are curious musicians,” Zanes said “We love playing with each other and trying new things — our Latino friends brought some amazing instrumentation to the album. Everything that I do musically has to do with the people I meet — they are the ones that turn me onto new sounds and new experiences.”

Though Zanes tends to get labeled as a kids’ performer, he feels his music is more inclusive than that.

“People tend to call it children’s music, and I see children’s music as music particular to the experience of children,” Zanes said. “Grown-ups are just as important as the kids. It’s really all-ages music. It’s supposed to just be fun.”

Even though Zanes is all about creating fun music, as a father he’s serious about the role of music in the lives of young children.

“Music is a crucial part of development, but is so easily brushed aside because of school budgets,” Zanes said. “Honestly, I don’t think there is one teacher or educator that doubts its importance. It would be wonderful if music education was included in more schools, but I think ultimately it falls back on the parents to make that happen.”

How can families begin to do that?

“My advice to parents: sing around the house,” Zanes said. “Even you think you don’t have a great voice, it’s a good place to start with kids.”


Kids RULE!: Dan Zanes and Friends
When: Sunday, Oct. 12, at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m.
Where: The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth
Tickets: $17 to $22, 436-2400 or www.themusichall.org