Sunday, January 27, 2013

Man Saved By Family Band - Dan Zanes Lives!

How fortunate for us that talented multi-instrumentalist Dan Zanes travelled the path that he did. Dan was born in 1961 in Exeter, New Hampshire and raised by his mother, a photographer who had also operated a number of soup kitchens. He began playing guitar at age 8. When he was old enough to get his first library card, Dan checked out LPs by the legendary Ledbelly and rocker Chuck Berry to start building his chops. "He always loved music", says his mother.

After a childhood in west Texas and on the eastern seaboard, Dan moved away to college in Oberlin, Ohio in 1981. The first morning in the breakfast line, he met Tom Lloyd, someone he knew from high school, and within a year, they quit college and moved to Boston with Dan's brother Warren where they met Steve Morrell and formed the Del Fuegos. They made a splash on the Boston club circuit and then branched out into east coast tours. They began recording and achieved the Best New Band title in 1984 by Rolling Stone magazine, with "Don't Run Wild" and a few other hits. Bruce Springsteen once jumped on stage with the Del Fuegos to sing "Hang on Sloopy"!
By 1987, the Del Fuegos were opening for Tom Petty. Things looked promising! But Dan was a young man with early success and little self-control. He was drinking heavily which contributed to the final demise of the Del Fuegos. But while they were climbing up, the band had a video made by Paula Grief, a TV commercial director, who married Dan and they moved to the Catskill Mountains. Dan gave up drinking and learned about the music recording process and made a solo recording on the Private label in 1995 called "Cool Down Time".
The album met with limited success and the couple decided to move to New York with their new daughter Anna. Dan was not making big waves in the music industry at this time but the burn to play music never left him. At the same time, being a parent seemed to be the thing that gave joy and meaning to life for Dan.
When Dan listened to the extant music that was made for children he was at once appalled and inspired. This led Dan down a path that helped him make music with other 'dads' and they eventually formed the Wonderland String Band. Zanes recorded songs they sang together on cassette and that renewed his musical career as well as giving it the seed of passion and spirit it needed. These homemade tapes became wildly popular!
Dan realized that he liked making music that families could enjoy together. He added a few women to his Band, renamed it the Rocket Ship Review, and began making a full-length album at home, enlisting the help of some people he had met when he was a Del Fuego: Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, and Simon Kirke, the drummer for Bad Company. "Rocket Ship Beach" (2000) was a big success! Dan Zanes and Friends made another three albums. The second album, "Family Dance" (2001) is composed of dance songs from a wide variety of musical teraditions and features Loudon Wainwright III and Rosanne Cash. The third and more mellow recording, "Night Time!" (2000) features collaborations with Aimee Mann, Lou Reed, John Doe, Dar Williams, and other established musicians.
The fourth album in the family series is "House Party" (2004), a rambunctious 20-song collection with a diverse instrumentation that includes tuba, accordion, pump organ, djembe and saw. House Party was nominated for a Grammy in the Musical Album for Children category. Music videos from the "House Party" album have aired on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.
In 2007, Zanes received the Grammy Award for Best Musical Album for Children for "Catch That Train" (2006) and produced a children's reggae CD with Father Goose called "It's a Bam Bam Diddly" (2007), which featured songs performed by Sister Carol and Sheryl Crow.
In early 2009 Zanes recording "!Nueva York!" (2008) won the 8th annual Independent Music Awards for Best Children's Music Album. This is one of my personal favorites as it offers a world music influence on vocals, instrumentation and rhythms.
His seventh album "76 Trombones" (2009) was a Broadway/Show tune themed album, featuring Tony Award winners Matthew Broderick, Carol Channing, and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The songs have been re-worked as all-ages music, introducing a new generation to the classic Broadway that many know and love. Proceeds from this album benefit Rosie's Broadway Kids, an organization founded in 2003 by Rosie O'Donnell dedicated to providing quality instruction in music and dance at no cost to public schools and students in New York City.

Dan Zanes and Friends' albums continue to support non-profits, and to receive accolades and awards. Zanes himself gave a free show in Tucson a few years ago, and also works on solo projects. Another CD that tops my personal favorite list is "Parades and Panoramas" (2004). Here Zanes has create a collection of 25 songs that Carl Sandburg put together and called the American Songbag. Sandburg himself was perhaps the first American urban folk singer, accompanying himself on solo guitar at lectures and poetry recitals, and in recordings, long before the first or the second folk revival movements (of the 1940s and 1960s). Some of these songs reflect a sense of changing America during the first part of the 20th century. You can also find The Monkey's Wedding from this CD to download on Freegal.
What sets Dan Zanes apart from other music makers is that he involves friends and neighbors in making music, and he is the guy who is always interested in singing along with people everywhere, connecting people to song. What a wonderful path to be on and to share!

DJ Gumby


  1. I had forgotten about the Del Fuegos. Great stuff, DJGumby!

    1. Thanks! Happy you liked it. There are some terrific videos on youtube from 'back in the day' from the Del Fuegos. The band is very young and the quality is good!


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