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Dan Zanes - Family style

Dan Zanes and I have come full circle. In a memorable night in the summer of 1984, after seeing R.E.M. and the Dream Syndicate, I rushed off to the Cubby Bear Lounge in Chicago to catch Dan Zanes lead the Del Fuegos through a blistering set opening for the Replacements. Today, Zanes is still quenching my thirst for the great musical experience by making records that my 3-year-old twin daughters are addicted to (they've dubbed him "Dan the music man"), yet that I enjoy so much I've been known to put them on when the girls aren't even home. No sane person has ever said that about Raffi or the Wiggles.

What Zanes is doing isn't really "children's music." His new album Night Time! (released October 8 on Zanes' own Festival Five Records) is his third record of what he terms "homemade American folk music," featuring a mix of original compositions, traditional songs, and classics penned by the likes of Lead Belly, Louis Armstrong and Woody Guthrie.

"Children's music can be kind of a ghetto," admits Zanes, "but man, I've got the life of Riley here. I've got my own label and it's doing really well. I play for the most devoted fans that I've ever played for in my life. I never lost the grown-ups, but now kids are added into the mix. My strength really isn't playing for children, it's playing for families, grandparents, all ages."

Zanes' second career started accidentally after his daughter was born. "I was really looking forward to getting updated versions of the folk music I'd grown up with," Zanes recalls. "When I was growing up, it seemed that everybody I liked had a lot of children's songs up their sleeves -- Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger -- it just seemed to be part of the package. But when I went to the record store looking for that same spirit of homemade folk music, I couldn't find anything."

Zanes had been immersing himself in Jamaican music after moving to the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, years after leaving rock 'n' roll behind when the Del Fuegos broke up in the early '90s. "The spirit of Jamaican music changed my outlook and brought me back," he says. "It seemed like another branch of that same folk music, that homemade sound. So I bought a five-string banjo and started playing with some friends of mine, other dads I met out at the playground. We had a little string band. It was almost like having a men's poker night. So from there I just made a cassette that I just gave out to the other dads at the park, and then a few of us started playing shows at the West Village Nursing Home, and in the park and at parties."

Rocket Ship Beach, released in 2000, included versions of "Erie Canal", "Over The Rainbow", "Buckeye Jim" and "Keep On The Sunny Side". Family Dance (2001) featured "Rock Island Line" and "Skip To My Lou". The new Night Time! includes "So Long It's Been Good To Know Yuh", "Wild Mountain Thyme" and "What A Wonderful World" (featuring a surprisingly sweet guest vocal by Lou Reed). When Zanes tackles the occasional "kids song" (such as "The Hokey Pokey" on Family Dance), he frequently features a Jamaican toaster named Rankin' Don, whose fresh and irresistible performances wipe away any cringe factor.

Zanes also keeps it lively by using various guest vocalists, mostly female, including Rosanne Cash, Aimee Mann, Suzanne Vega, and his regular collaborators Barbara Brousal and West Indian vocal group the Sandy Girls.

Zanes' live shows have also branched out from his original "men's poker night" lineup. "Coming from the rock 'n' roll world, it was the most natural thing that I could be doing to have 4 or 5 white guys up there; I never thought twice about it," Zanes admits. "Then I played at a school down the street from me, and it was an even split between Arabic, African-American, Hispanic and white kids. And I realized that few of these kids could look up there and completely identify with the people onstage. And it's all dudes! Fortunately, I reconnected with my friend Barbara Brousal and I noticed the difference at the first show she played. The girls in the audience were paying more attention. So now I'm committed to maintaining as much diversity in the group as I can."

Zanes' lower-wattage approach to music has clearly re-energized him. "When I started this after having been in a rock band for ten years, I couldn't believe how much fun it was to be with people playing acoustic instruments. It just knocked me out how communal and soulful it felt. Every time I play a show now, it will remind me of why I love music and why music changed my life. I really feel like I've found my calling."