By Terrence Dick
It was our first gig in New York City and we thought it would be a snap, but the fidgeting started shortly into our first song, followed by tears, screaming and runny noses. Soon the audience began crawling away and we resorted to crawling after them, begging them to stay. We cut the set short and sheepishly put away our instruments, avoiding eye contact with the parents in the crowd. Our other gigs that weekend were sparsely attended but nothing was as humiliating as that first gig at Soho’s Children’s Museum. New York might be a tough town, but there’s no tougher audience than a bunch of kids.
Children’s musicians are rarely considered cool, but ever since that afternoon in New York I’ve had a grudging respect for them. However, now that I have my own mini-me running around, I’ve had to endure the insidiously gleeful songs of Raffi and his ilk. Fortunately, more and more of my musical peers have found themselves mit kinder and have been kind enough to make music that draws less on the shiny, happy hippie-folk of our own infancies and more on the indie rock we know and love.
CDs by Dan Zanes-ex of American roots rockers the Del Fuegos, now a renown children’s musician-are passed from parent to parent with a reassuring pat, “You’ll be able to enjoy this.” Online kid dance parties like Pancake Mountain (www.pancakemountain.com) and Chic-a-go-go (www.roctober.com/chicagogo/) feature appearances by the likes of the Arcade Fire and the Fiery Furnaces. They Might Be Giants have finally realized their true potential and there’s a plethora of Canadians joining in as well.
The Rheostatics started it off with The Story of Harmelodia and then there was Sunny, a storybook with bonus CD by Robin Mitchell and Judith Steedman. Campfire Records released the double CD Somebody Needs a Timeout in 2002 with kid friendly tunes from Moneen, By Divine Right, the Waking Eyes, Hayden and about twenty other unlikely bands. They’ve recently followed it up with I’m Somebody Too! which will have to share shelf space with See You on the Moon from Paper Bag records. Soon playgrounds across the country will throb with the sounds of Sufjan Stevens, Broken Social Scene and Kid Koala.
Two recently released CDs by Canadian bands present different takes on the whole children’s music genre. Duplex from Vancouver features Veda Hille, members of P:Ano and the Beekeepers, a couple tweens and a three year old. They take inspiration from what Hille calls “naïve music” and represent the punk rock end of things. Sho, Mo and the Monkey Bunch are a Toronto group headed by Shoshana Sparling and Maury LaFoy. With their tributes to the Beatles, the Who and Louis Armstrong, they fall under the classic rock banner.
Duplex formed because everyone in the group lived together in a duplex. Hille, a songwriter with her own extensive oeuvre, loves the collective feel of being in a band and is happy not to be in charge. According to drummer Justin Kellam, the directives come from below: “If it ever becomes like work, the kids rein it in…you know, Why do we have to do this?” Having kids in the group delights their audience; “toddlers freaking love this band,” says Hille. The whole thing ends up feeling, as she also points out, “more like a family record than a kid’s record.” The music is all over the place, with super-catchy surf-pop songs butting up against primitive rhymes and quirky skits. “Pooing & Peeing” is reputedly a big hit out west but kids of all ages with a taste for indie-pop could enjoy this.
The Monkey Bunch started as s a musical gift for Sparling and LaFoy’s nieces and nephews and has expanded to a full band with guest members from Toronto’s music community. It wasn’t hard to convince people to join in; says Sparling, “the musicians got to be the most uncool they’ve ever been.” All Sho and Mo wanted to do was create music that was great, well-played and “wouldn’t make parents shoot themselves.” They’ve since blown minds young and old at concerts that exploit Sparling’s theatre and comedy background, but sharing a backing band with Jann Arden (LaFoy’s other gig) means they don’t play as often as they’d like to. At least the CD gives you the opportunity to sing along at home to such sure fire hits as “No Way.” To quote, “There’s no darn way in the whole darn world I’m gonna get lung cancer!”
Both bands insist the key is to treat the kids with respect. “You don’t need to contrive music for kids,” says Hille. “You have to speak up to kids, not down,” adds Sparling. And with those words, parents can heave a sigh of relief.
Duplex’s Ablum is on Mint Records (www.mintrecs.com). Sho Mo and the Monkey Bunch can be reached at www.themonkeybunch.com.