Ex-pop star rel­ishes role as Pied Piper

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Mark Kennedy

NEW YORK — Dan Zanes and El­iz­a­beth Mitchell had only been play­ing for about 10 min­utes when the stage was in­vaded.

The first to ap­pear was a stuffed lamb. Then a cud­dly di­nosaur. Then all hell broke loose and kids on tip­toes were putting all sorts of beloved stuffed an­i­mals — and a col­lec­tion of 19 neatly or­ga­nized My Lit­tle Ponys — on the lip of the stage to get a bet­ter lis­ten.

“Did they buy tick­ets?” Zanes teased from be­hind a gui­tar on New York Univer­sity’s Skir­ball Cen­ter stage. “Ac­tu­ally, ponies and di­nosaurs get in for free.”

If most con­certs th­ese days are about twerk­ing and py­rotech­nics, a Zanes con­cert usu­ally in­volves some gen­tle choo-choo danc­ing in the aisles, world beats and teddy bears. Plus, it’s of­ten over by noon — that’s when the tar­get au­di­ence naps.

“We have wild dance par­ties be­fore lunch,” he says. “Who else is go­ing to say that, right? I don’t care how many records you’ve sold: Who’s hav­ing the dance par­ties be­fore lunch?”

Zanes, a rail-thin, bushy-haired Grammy Award win­ner whom Peo­ple mag­a­zine has called the “crown prince of con­tem­po­rary kids’ mu­sic,” is a for­mer mem­ber of the 1980s band the Del Fue­gos who turned to chil­dren’s mu­sic af­ter the birth of his daugh­ter and never looked back, build­ing a ca­reer with in­fec­tious sounds from all over the world.

Zanes’ globe-trot­ting mu­sic ap­petite ranges from ele­ments of Tu­nisian Sufi, the Louisiana bayou, Ap­palachia, the Caribbean and South Africa to mak­ing a CD com­pletely in Span­ish. He likes to call what he does “21st-cen­tury, all-ages, hand­made so­cial mu­sic,” but ev­ery­one else calls them kid­die songs.

“I ac­cept it. But I don’t think of it as chil­dren’s mu­sic,” he says in his com­fort­able two-storey Brook­lyn home in a di­verse neigh­bour­hood pop­u­lated by Bangladeshi and Pak­istani im­mi­grants. “This is re­ally mu­sic for ev­ery­body to sink their teeth into.”

Since his de­but al­bum, Rocket Ship Beach, in 2000, Zanes has recorded with all sorts of mu­si­cians, in­clud­ing Deb­bie Harry, Sh­eryl Crow, Lou Reed, Ziggy Mar­ley and Philip Glass. This month marks a new CD col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mitchell, also a gi­ant among the nap set. To par­ents, the part­ner­ship is vir­tu­ally akin to Paul McCart­ney and John Len­non work­ing to­gether.

In Turn, Turn, Turn, Zanes and Mitchell team up with Daniel and Storey Lit­tle­ton — her hus­band and daugh­ter — to cre­ate gen­tle folk tunes. Five are Zanes’ orig­i­nals, and there are also sev­eral tra­di­tional songs.

He and Mitchell have been friends since they met at a ma­ter­nity shop in SoHo, and they’ve long wanted to record to­gether. As a sign of how in synch they were, both showed up with a list of the same ob­scure songs, in­clud­ing My Creole Belle.

“That’s kind of odd, you have to say,” she says by phone. “It was just re­ally fun and re­ally nat­u­ral. He and I have re­ally been on this sim­i­lar path since Day 1.”

Zanes and Mitchell emerged around the same time and have seen the genre of fam­ily mu­sic ex­plode.

“A lot of peo­ple felt sorry for me when I first started do­ing this. They re­ally thought I’d given up rock ’n’ roll so I could sing Old Mac­Don­ald ev­ery day,” he says. “Peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tion about what fam­ily mu­sic could be was very, very limited.”

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