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'80s rocker finds kids are alright

'80s rocker finds kids are alright

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ALBANY, N.Y. - Up above the delirium, the rocker - battered Silvertone strapped across his chest - leans out over the stage and grins.

Dan Zanes can see clearly now, not like the old days when the white-hot of the stagelights beamed back from the blackness, defying attempts to identify the voices that screamed his name.

Maybe you've never heard of him, but for at least 15 minutes, Zanes was a rock star.

Today, when Zanes takes the stage, the old saw about how having kids changes everything begs no questions.

Across the mosh pit, they're lifting toddlers overhead instead of cigarette lighters.

But Zanes' guitar can still make the room wobble. And if this crowd knows anything, it's how to abandon inhibition and have a good time.

So with nap time over and dinner time not yet arrived, the band lets loose. The audience doesn't need an invitation to join in.

On TV, The Electric Company featured some cool tunes. Schoolhouse Rock, tucked between Saturday morning cartoons, left you humming. Records like Free to Be You and Me bring back memories.

But something's happened in kids' music over the last few years that has no precedent.

Maybe it was a backlash against Barney, or a search for meaning that The Wiggles could not fulfill.

Maybe it's just that rockers grew up.

Whatever the explanation, there's an explosion of bands cranking out kid-friendly pop, rock, folk and punk that even an adult could - gulp - enjoy.

"It's music for kids that won't make parents want to gouge their ears out," says Bill Childs, a law professor who spins two hours of these tunes every Saturday morning on a public radio station in Northampton, Mass.

"Our generation of parents is approaching music and media and all of that for our kids a little differently," says Amy Davis, an Ohio mom who authors a popular blog about the new wave of what some have dubbed kindie rock. "We want to enjoy it with them. We don't want to turn it on and leave the room."

Meld that desire with digital technology that lets musicians quickly and cheaply record and distribute their own songs, and things begin to percolate.

Now we've got kid-friendly covers of Velvet Underground tunes, and rollicking ditties about treehouses and temper tantrums and the need to recycle. When rock fans flock to the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago this summer, their progeny can head for the Kidzapalooza stage.

But the resulting cacophony makes it's easy to forget that somebody had to go first. Somebody willing to risk a little dignity, to shelve their snarl. Somebody with nothing to lose.

It didn't matter that nobody at home played an instrument. At 8, Zanes persuaded his mother to buy him a guitar. He tapped into her affection for musicians like Gordon Lightfoot and Pete Seeger. He hoarded Chuck Berry and Leadbelly records.

After a year at Oberlin College, he and a classmate left for early 1980s-Boston, bent on living rock 'n' roll.

They called themselves The Del Fuegos, with Zanes on lead guitar and vocals. They played college bars.

The Del Fuegos played a strutting, frenetic brand of garage-rock that quickly won a prodigious local following, then wider notice.

"Real rock 'n' roll ... is rude, crude and unrepentantly raucous - in fact, very much like the heartfelt noise that Boston's Del Fuegos have been churning out for the past two-and-a-half years," wrote Rolling Stone. It named them the best new band of 1984.

"We were living the dream," Zanes says. "We never smiled in any of the pictures, which is funny to me because we were living the life everyone wanted."

In 1985, Zanes' band inked a deal to appear in a television commercial for Miller Beer. It debuted during the broadcast of the Live Aid concert for famine relief. That youthful decision almost immediately robbed them of credibility, and won them derision from the hipper than hip.

It seems almost quaint now, with corporations routinely paying to plaster their names over concert stages and even the most "authentic" musicians leasing songs to hawk everything from pickups to six-packs.

Looking back, though, the band's decline was a perverse blessing, Zane says.

By the time it fizzled, they'd veered off course, he says. Those rock 'n' roll stereotypes - out all night, drinking too excess - they're all true. They couldn't see it at the time, but it's clear, now.

Long before it ended, it wasn't about music anymore.

The show doesn't start until 4. But more than an hour early, the folks who've come to see Dan Zanes & Friends start lining up on the steamy sidewalk outside the Paramount in Peekskill, N.Y., ready to claim front-row seats.

In the mid-90s, Zanes was making a solo record, filled with songs about "old girlfriends and drinking." After his daughter was born, he headed to Tower Records, looking for something in the children's section that would allow him to introduce her to the music he loved, but found little he could stomach.

So he made a cassette of family music, intended for distribution to friends and Brooklyn neighbors. When your friends and neighbors include singers Suzanne Vega and Sheryl Crow, though, interesting things can happen.

Five CDs later, his fans arrive in strollers and baby-backpacks. Older boys run up and down the alley next to the theater. For some, this is the first time. Others are nothing short of Zanes' groupies.

It's exactly the kind of intergenerational chaos Zanes is hoping for.

"The band is the reason for people to gather together but we never ever expect that everyone's going to be sitting quietly listening to us play," he says. "When you see kids getting up and doing it, it breaks down an already quite uninhibited crowd. Whether it's from lack of sleep or what it is, I think new parents tend to shed their inhibitions fairly quickly."

Zanes sets a good example. He arrives on stage, hair projecting 4 inches from his forehead in an antigravity style that crosses steel wool with salt water taffy. His pipe-cleaner limbs are sheathed in one of an impressive collection of electric-colored suit jackets. In Peekskill, he dons key lime green. In Albany, orange corduroy.

A Zanes show travels a carefully constructed arc. It starts with gentler folk songs, many drawn from the trove of the American songbook. Then it builds gradually toward music defying easy classification, except that you can dance to it. If that doesn't do it, there's always the late entry of Father Goose, a Jamaican-accented house music don who turns Mary Had a Little Lamb into a bouncing, sing-along rap anthem.

By now, with the act on the road nearly every weekend, Zanes and bandmates could play these songs backwards. Yet they still seem a little amazed by it all.

"We played a few songs and then Dan says: 'That was good. Can you smile?" says drummer Colin Brooks, a punk rock veteran, recalling his audition for the band three years ago. "The next thing I know I was in Minneapolis playing up in front of 1,000 kids, saying, 'What is this?"'

Zanes doesn't pretend to have it all figured out, either. But he's clearly not taking it for granted.

At show's end, the band strolls out of the theater to applause, then spends nearly an hour shaking hands, signing autographs and posing for pictures, until there's no one left to thank.

"Hey, I had a time when I wasn't wanted and I didn't have a lot going on," Zanes says. The Albany theater lobby is empty and he lets himself back on to the darkened stage through a side door. "I'm grateful for this."

On a midweek afternoon, Zanes flips on the light and leads the way down the sharp-angled steps to his Brooklyn cellar.

The room, hung with vintage gospel posters, is filled with instruments, mixing boards. One old power cord has "Del Fuegos" marked on it in masking tape. Not one shows a trace of dust.

"I've still got a drumset in the basement and I use it all the time. People come in and out. We just sort of sit around and come up with the ideas that excite us the most," he says. "Things have to feel good, they have to feel spontaneous. That, to me, is the spirit of rock 'n' roll."

True, what comes out of this room isn't exactly rock.

But who said it had to be?

Maybe nobody appreciates that better than fans whose delight in self-expression comes free of the baggage of image or pretense or the latest mandate to be whatever's hip.

It's not something he's ever address in a song, though, Zanes says. So, we'll just listen.

"I can hear the kids shouting up and down the street," Zanes and friends jubilate on his latest CD.

"Snapping their fingers and shuffling their feet ...

"Tuba and those violins,

"One song ends and another begins."

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