High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Monday, November 20, 2006

When Are They Going to Rock? Wee Hairy Beasties and Dan Zanes & Friends

At some point, and that point may not be far in the future, people are going to start wondering why I, a creepy, childless hag, spend so much time consuming children's music. Wanted: An Army of Beards. Those over 5' Need Not Apply.

I try to be as fair and balanced an aunt as I can, but I am lazy first, last, and always. As I suspected might happen, my nephew A never made mention again of wanting to go to the Field Museuem after he was cruelly denied in the summer. However, I did want to take him for a day out in the interests of auntly equity.

So when I saw the PR for the Wee Hairy Beasties performance at Old Town, my thoughts naturally turned to A. And those thoughts remained firmly fixed on him and in no way strayed to other matters, like my long-time love for The Mekons, my growing fascination with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts (and that fascination was in no way sparked by their CD of execution songs, which I did not know until this very second was part of the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project), or my recently having been intrigued by and desirous of receiving the newsletter of Devil in a Woodpile (which, in turn, is unrelated to having seen Joel Paterson among those who opened for Junior Brown.

Believe it or not, those last two are completely true. I was utterly unaware of the Mekons (and, by extension, Beasties) connection to the Pine Valley Cosmonauts (although, of course, the PVC's CD does feature my beloved Neko Case on "Poor Ellen Smith"). But my brain did absolutely need to experience Jon Langford and Sally Timms doing kiddo music, and I was not too proud to enlist an underage relative as a beard.

In fairness to my M@d @unt1ng 5k1llz, though, A does seem to have a lot of innate musical talent, and certainly has a passion for it. I bought him a student guitar last Christmas (and he still hasn't gotten lessons), and he's just started playing double-bass recently. Plus, you know, Mekons! Even though I suspected that the theme of the music would be pitched to a youngish audience (he's 9), I'd hoped that it would still be interesting enough for him.

Sadly, it was more or less a disaster, although I did convince him of the inherent awesomeness of the steel guitar. I picked him up an hour and 15 minutes before show time from his basketball game. This ought to have been ample time to get back to Old Town (which is much closer to his house than the Painful Acres is [are?]). Sadly, it took us almost 40 minutes to get through one fucking toll at River Road, by which time he was a hair's breadth from being used as a hood ornament. Even my fascinating retread of the Amish Conversation I'd had with his sister in May failed to really hold his interest.

When we finally arrived in Lincoln Square, parking was a total nightmare, down to both pay lots being full. There was also a delay as I had to explain to the Suburban Refugee what a parking meter is. We arrived about 10 or 15 minutes late, which turned out to be all for the best. He was just too old for the music itself, and just too young to get any of the humor of either the lyrics or the banter. I am neither, fortunately.

Sally was decked out in this awesome kind of dirndl with tiny angel's wings, a skirt with a ton of funky, glittery embroidery, and stripey tights and DM mary janes. She mostly sang and played some funky wood-block or wood-block-adjacent percussion things. Jon sang lead for most songs and provided most of the banter (because everything is more banteriffic in a Welsh accent). Devil in a Woodpile provided upright bass (Tom Ray), acoustic and hot hot hot steel guitar (Joel Paterson), and washboard, clarinet, harmonica, and additional vocals (Rick Sherry).

We heard I'm an A N T (questionable body letters on the N front, if you ask me); the Road Safety Song (A's scathing critique of the "There's a Duck in the Road" part: "The duck can just fly away"); Cuttlefish Bone; Buzz, Buzz, Buzz; Cyril the Karaoke Squirrel (a tragedy in three acts: he and his wife Marjorie the Singing Bee end up ostracized amid accusations that they have rabies); and I think "Housefly Blues," which is the old woman who swallowed a fly, etc. This got particularly hilarious postdog.

Jon: And what chases a dog?
A lone voice from the crowd: DINOSAURS!
Jon: [the merest pause] This is true. However, I don't know of any extant dinosaurs in Chicago. Come on? When you see a dog running fast down the street, what's after it?
Jon: [finally taking pity on the feeble minded] Why a goat, of course! How unobservant!

There was then talk of the fierce, carnivorous, horse-eating cows that roam the land. A was scornful once again: "I eat cow. Hamburger!" Ah well, he did enjoy the little pretty pretty princess girls on the main floor who were alternately dancing with one another and staging matches that rival anything from the WWE. Afterward (that is after I had to whisk him out of the the Different Strummer after the third time I had to stop him from trying to take the $3000 electric upright bass down), I took him to Laurie's Planet of Sound, which is one of the cooler record stores in Chicago. I'd planned to buy him something, but he was, frankly, being such a butthead by that time that I was not going to reward his behavior. I did reward mine, however, with a little Talking Heads and a soupçon of the Decemberists.

What is ironic about the A debacle is the fact that he probably would have enjoyed the show for which I volunteered today, which was Dane Zanes and friends. Well, he would have enjoyed it if he could have gotten over the fact that 4 and 5 year olds were having a great time, too. I understand that, at 9, shunning the babies is key.

And yeah, I know what you're thinking if you've clicked the link and looked at the picture. Believe me, I was experiencing the hair spawn of Rod Stewart and Clay Aiken live, in person, and paired with a skinny red suit. But as balls out goofy as Dan himself is, it's funky and charming, not at all obnoxious and condescending. I quote from the website quoting from the NYT Magazine:
Mostly, though, Zanes kids music works because it is not kids music; it's just music—music that's unsanitized, unpasteurized, that's organic even.

(And in looking at the bio page, I see many, many Dan collaborations that are synchronicitous for me: Lou Reed, Dar Williams, Roseanne Cash, Nick Cave, etc.).

The band entered from the side door of the auditorium and walked down the steps, across in front of the stage, and then up the far side of the stage stairs, singing "Sidewalks of New York," each playing a brightly colored ukulele (I think—they had four strings, anyway), that they seemed to have picked up on a whim at the store (along with some other instruments) right before the show. Other than Dan, the band today consisted of (seems like it's a kind of floating ensemble, typically: Charlie Faye (wearing a very Carter family [in the best possible way] sundress and cowboy boots) on guitar, mandolin, and vocals (and what a voice!), Saskia Lane (awesome tank-top, drop-waist flappery dress) on double bass and vocals (mostly lovely harmonies), John Foti (pin-striped shirt with vest, baggie pants, and a "newsie" cap, very old timey and much more of a cutie pie than that picture implies) on accordion, harmonica, and vocals, and Colin Brooks (no, not that one; and not that one either. Sadly, he doesn't seem to have an online presence [but he's the one with the drum in that picture], but he did have a cool zoot suit-y get up) on drums.

As you might have noticed, these people are ridiculously attractive. I predict that there will be an entire generation that feels very strongly about traditional folk instrumentation, up to and including accordion and banjo, and not really have any idea why. There is no bad there. Anyway, the kids were crazy for the music. The parents were crazy for the music. I didn't buy any, but lest anyone think I've spontaneously sprouted pride and/or shame, I simply couldn't compete with the crush of little people making the rounds for autographs. The CDs? They will be mine. Oh yes . . . the will be mine.

After "Sidewalks" they did a song called "Hello, hello," and many of my balcony children just had to go down and dance. Once they did "Catch that Train," it was impossible to disassemble the trains that formed everywhere (one poor little chickadee acting as caboose got rather keel-hauled by her train, but she hung on admirably). When Charlie Faye did the first verse of "Welcome Table," I nearly fell over the balcony (which would have been really embarrassing, given that my only job was to make sure no one fell over the balcony) looking for the clearly giant person who must be making that powerful sound. Everyone took a verse on "Down by the Riverside," which Dan declared the best anti-war song of all time, among many great anti-war songs.

Like Dia de los Muertos, there was little or no talking down to the kids. When he introduced "It's Holiday Time in Brooklyn," it was clear that he was (appropriately) making a pitch for Heifer International, for which he wrote the song, to the parents, he explained what it was and why it was needed in kid-friendly terms, too, without been twee about it.

About halfway through the show, Dan called Saskia's brother Yuri up on stage, and he performed a few numbers with them and did a short beatbox demonstration, ending with an extremely creditable elephant impression that drove the kiddies wild. Not as wild as Dan, who had the combined excitement of 100 three-year-olds who'd just been given an espresso and a puppy. Maybe a little more excited than that. Pretty cute.

Throughout the show, Dan kept checking the party levels. These continued to climb to 11, and then the next 11 above that. When all the little ones were vibrating out of the visible spectrum, he called Father Goose (aka Rankin' Don) on to the stage. And . . . um . . . there was like this really cool reggae party mix of "Twinkle Twinkle," and "Baa, baa, black sheep," and "Old MacDonald," and "Ring Around the Rosie," and and and . . And it was COOL. Shut up. I hate you all.

But because you can't end with a song like that, and you have to end with a waltz, they all took up their ukuleles again and played themselves out to "Sweet Rosyanne," which I absolutely love, and I cannot wait to hear the CD version with Nick freaking Cave, because that is just . . . well, isn't it just?

Anyway, it was awesome. And then I went to a grown-up concert in the evening. So you can stop worrying about my psychological regression. Neener. And you have stupid hair.

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