[Note from Dan Gibson: Stefan Shepherd has a day job like most of us, but on the side, he just happens to be an amateur expert in children's music, with news outlets like NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Sirius/XM turning to him for information. Even if you haven't heard kids' music since Raffi was singing about bananas, you'll still find his website Zooglobble interesting. He seemed like the perfect guy to preview the Dan Zanes show at the Rialto on Sunday.]
It was not terribly surprising to me and probably appropriate that Dan Zanes played his first family show in Arizona in Tucson instead of Phoenix, where I live. That’s because the thing that really drives Zanes once you strip away the music — his obsession with community — is one thing that Tucson, from this vantage point, does better than Phoenix.
Despite the distance, our family traveled down I-10 to Tucson one spring weekend in 2007 to see Zanes in concert. He played at the Rialto Theatre early on a Sunday afternoon, just like he's doing this Sunday. I still remember standing in line with my daughter and wife, Dan Zanes-branded ukulele in hand. The ukulele ended up being a useful distraction as unspecified difficulties meant the doors opened late. But the delay also provided an excuse to socialize with everyone else in line, looking at instruments — I was by no means the only person who'd brought an instrument to the show — and chatting amiably.
Dan Zanes has niftily made a whole second career out of playing music for families. He's often called the "godfather of kids' music" for being one of the first artists to hit it big in the resurgence of the genre around the turn of the century and his encouragement of other artists. But while hundreds of artists try to be the next Laurie Berkner and make music for preschoolers, Zanes is still mostly an exception in that he's making music for families that doesn't take kids' lives as their subject matter. “Age-desegregated” music, he calls it.
That's maybe why there were a few childless twenty-somethings or college students who attended that show a few years back. His concerts are very much geared at families, but there's nothing that would exclude those who didn't come to the concert with a sippy-cup in hand or was heading to the bar for a juice pouch.
Zanes is a bit restless, constantly searching out different sounds to incorporate into his music. After winning the Grammy for Best children's Musical Recording in 2007 for Catch That Train! which featured the Blind Boys of Alabama, Nick Cave, and the Kronos Quartet among others, he released a Spanish-language album, a collection of old and new ecumenical spiritual tracks, and a take on Broadway standards. This is in addition to albums based on Carl Sandberg’s American Songbag and sea chanties, the latter of which features the best drinking song sung by a 12-year-old you will ever hear.
Longtime fans wishing Zanes would return to the polyglot ways of Catch That Train! will be happy to hear that his next album, due for a release sometime this year, won’t have a particular focus like his most recent albums. Instead, it'll feature folks like Sharon Jones and the Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars. (The list of guest stars on Zanes' albums is no less bright than that of those on Yo Gabba Gabba!, though perhaps more NPR than Pitchfork.) His interest in making music with others extends to his concerts — in addition to his band, Zanes usually has a local guest star perform during his set; there's no word from Zanes on who might show up this Sunday, though his show in 2007 featured Salvador Duran.
Lots of parents probably have had this date reserved in their calendar for months now, but if you don't have a kid, it might be worth seeing if you can tag along as the aunt or uncle. Heck, they'll let you in the show even without a kid, and you won't feel weird like being an adult without a kid at the playground. Instead, it'll be one of the more communal concert experiences you'll have.