Dan Zanes wants to change the world. He thinks music, particularly the back-porch variety, is the key. And because grassroots efforts must start at the very beginning, he's taken to pitching his to kids -- or, to be more exact, families. Zanes has recorded a string of high-quality CDs with an ongoing parade of friends in his Brooklyn living room and released them on his own label, Festival Five Records. He brings his patented mixture of traditional folk and original tunes to town Tuesday for a family concert at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Back in the wild and woolly '80s, Zanes lived hard as the leader of the Del Fuegos, a Boston-based garage-rock band with a meteoric career launched by early critical acclaim. "To be in your twenties in a rock-and-roll band, making records and touring the world, is really great. But it was something that ran its course," Zanes says plainly, talking on the phone from New York. "When I was in that world, it was more like, 'What's in it for Dan?' As I'm getting older, I see things differently. My feeling now is more like, 'How can I take what I love doing and be useful in the world and have fun at the same time?'"
The Del Fuegos fizzled, and Zanes and his wife went on a pastoral retreat in the Catskills, where he ignored the pop-music world and gardened. "The '80s were a nice, neat decade. At the end of it, I pulled as far back as I could," he says. "I started thinking differently about what music was and what I loved about it." The couple had a daughter and moved to Brooklyn, where the ever-changing path of new fatherhood helped complete Zanes's musical catharsis. It was as simple -- or, conversely, as difficult -- as buying a CD for his little girl.
"I went to the big record store looking for what I thought would be an updated version of music I grew up with. I had a sound in my head of what I assumed would be filling the shelves. But I couldn't find it," he recalls. "I wanted something that kids and grownups could listen to together, but not the kind of kids' music that would scare the grownups away -- something that sounded homemade, like it was made by people sitting in a room playing music." Though he eventually, after much searching, found some music that recalled the Pete Seeger and Ella Jenkins records of his youth, Zanes ended up taking a hands-on approach: "I made a cassette of what I thought was cool music for kids and grownups to enjoy together and gave it to my friends." Crafted with the soulful, homegrown quality he fervently sought, the tape proved so popular that those friends urged him to make a record. He did, in 1999; now, his fourth kids' CD, House Party, is scheduled for release in September.
There's no looking back for Zanes, who doesn't see a return to making music for grownups. "I can't picture it," he says. "My musical needs are so satisfied now. I see people who are experiencing live music for the first time, and I can see the lightbulbs going off right and left -- how they're seeing a woman standing there with an accordion, and she's pumping it in and out, and there's a sound coming out. And it looks like it ought to be an incredible amount of fun." Which is just his point: "I want kids to be able to picture themselves doing the same thing, to share my excitement in music-making. I want to tell them, 'You can do this, too. Try this at home.'"
And then what? Tighter communities? World peace? "I'm an optimist," Zanes says. "We live in times that call for renewed efforts toward change. Everywhere I go, people are opening up to the idea, but it's hard to break through those inhibitions we all carry. I'm a WASP from New England. I'm familiar with being uptight -- I'm not by nature a free- flowing, loud kind of person. But once you break through that, I think it gets easier. If I can do it, anyone can do it. Music can do a lot to change our country."
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