"I have grown to understand that kids and I have a lot in common," Zanes said recently via cell phone the night before a gig in Seattle.
"They like wild parties, to be social, to dance and listen to music that is fun. I like to listen to music that sounds like the people who are playing it are having fun. I think kids like to get uninhibited when they listen to music," he said.
Zanes and his six-piece backing band, Dan Zanes and Friends, will play the Rialto Theatre at noon this Sunday.
Since founding his Festival Five Records in 2000, Zanes has released seven family-oriented albums. The most recent is last year's Catch That Train!, which won the 2007 Grammy Award for best musical album for children.
Rock fans might remember that, in the 1980s, Zanes led the Boston-based band the Del Fuegos with his guitar-playing brother, Warren. That band released four albums, generating modest radio hits in "I Still Want You" and "Don't Run Wild."
Zanes also made a 1995 rock solo album, Cool Down Time, on which the themes were basically "old girlfriends and getting drunk--you know, the usual rock sort of subjects." By the time he recorded that CD, however, he was no longer deriving satisfaction from playing mainstream rock.
"But I found I was having tons of fun playing music with friends at the park and at parties and around the neighborhood. It's a basic and old-fashioned way of music-making that I was getting back in touch with."
Zanes discovered the joy of making music for families after his daughter, now 12, was born. He and pals from his Brooklyn neighborhood started playing together for fun. Before they knew it, Zanes was releasing their homemade recordings to the public.
"What I really wanted was to make music my daughter and I would be able to enjoy together, as a way of making that emotional connection," Zanes said. "Then I thought of making music that would reflect community--the neighborhood, basically."
The 45-year-old, haystack-headed Zanes favors colorful, mismatched vintage suits and plays what he calls "21st century folk music."
On Catch That Train! that category includes some gospel, R&B, funky big-band jazz, a 1930s labor classic, Jamaican rock steady and traditional Celtic, Zulu, Americana folk and blues.
In addition to Zanes' friends and neighbors, Catch That Train! features guest artists such as the Blind Boys of Alabama, Natalie Merchant, Kronos Quartet and Nick Cave. Previous Zanes and Friends CDs have included cameos by Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, Loudon Wainwright III, Rosanne Cash, Aimee Mann, Lou Reed, John Doe, Dar Williams and Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke.
"It's been really nice that so many people have been so willing to come into my world," Zanes said. "I like to think that it's what would've happened if they come over to my house for dinner and decided to sing a couple of tunes afterwards."
While Zanes' music has connected with the audience, he has formed partnerships to promote it. Hear Music, the musical arm of Starbucks, distributes Zanes' latest CD, and you can catch his videos during Playhouse Disney on the Disney Channel.
Zanes never underestimates the sophistication of his audience.
"We did an album (Parades and Panoramas) of the Carl Sandburg American songbook, and some of that was pretty dark stuff. But the kids understood. We did a record (Sea Music) of all maritime music, and it had drinking songs, and people were drowning in the songs, but I still feel that it was a really good record for kids. They could relate. It is a little weird for me to hear--and this really happened--that a 5-year-old's favorite song from my albums is a sailor's drinking song, but that's one of the wonderful things that happen."
In children, Zanes finally has found his ideal listeners, he said.
"I always brag about this when I run into friends from the pop world. With an audience of kids, I really get everything I've wanted an audience of adults to be. I want to see that spirited dancing that would start immediately once the music starts. Kids set the tone, and we usually have a wild dance party before lunch."