Dan Zanes’ renditions of songs like “Polly Wolly Doodle” and “Erie Canal” can be called many things — fun, infectious, even a little goofy. The wild-haired Zanes prefers “age non-discriminatory” or simply “family-friendly.” Kids love them, but everyone who comes to a show leaves with a smile and a song or two stuck in their head.
One label, however, doesn’t fit. “There is kids’ music out there that is particular to the experiences of children, and this is definitely not that,” Zanes said recently from his home in Brooklyn. “This is more something-for-everybody type music, which is kind of the old-fashioned way.”
Born in Exeter and raised in Concord, Zanes is returning home to perform a pair of benefit shows for The Friendly Kitchen on Saturday, April 9. It’s something he’s done for the past 11 years, and Zanes looks forward to it for a couple of reasons. First, his mother once ran the soup kitchen and food bank and is still very involved with it. Second, the performance features local musicians rather than Zanes’ regular band.
The core group has been consistent through the years and includes his brother-in-law Donald Saaf, who designed the artwork for several of his CDs.
“It’s people from around Concord and St. Paul’s School, a mixture of kids and grownups,” Zanes explains. “We have some real young kids that are going to join us this year ... Concord is getting more diverse, and we want to reflect that in the show.”
This last aspect is something Zanes finds very encouraging.
“Everything I learned about the world, I learned outside of Concord,” he says. “Now there are so many more possibilities for young people to learn about the bigger world right in their hometown.”
Zanes often describes his exuberant brand of music as “homemade” — with good reason. It evolved out of necessity when he became a parent in 1994. “What I wanted when my daughter was born was a shared experience, music the two of us would be able to listen to together that would have some emotional meaning for both of us,” he says. “I didn’t find as much of it as I thought I would, so I started making it myself.”
At the time, the former Del Fuegos front man was still working on rock music. But cassettes of songs recorded for his daughter generated a buzz among parents in his neighborhood. “Nobody cared about my solo record, and everybody wanted to hear more of all this all-ages music,” says Zanes. “I just realized that I was having a lot more fun doing this [so] I decided to throw myself into it, and I’ve never looked back. It’s taken me all around the world.”
He’s recruited some big names to help out on his records, beginning with Sheryl Crow and Suzanne Vega on his first collection, 2000’s Rocket Ship Beach, recently re-released on vinyl. Natalie Merchant and Lou Reed have also worked with him, and an upcoming project will feature Andrew Bird and Sharon Jones of the Dap-Kings.
Zanes recalls some starstruck moments: “The Five Blind Boys came over to the house and ate fried chicken and then went into the other room and started recording,” he says. “I made my daughter stay home from school. I thought, this is never going to happen again, better catch it now.”
He flew to California to do “Wabash Cannonball” with Bob Weir for 2003’s House Party. “We recorded at the Grateful Dead warehouse, where they keep all their merchandise and live tapes,” he recalls. “It’s the size of a city block and in the middle there’s a little studio. To be surrounded by 40 years of memorabilia, recording with someone from the Grateful Dead, was a pretty heavy experience.”
Zanes’ daughter Anna turns 17 this year and has grown a bit beyond her father’s music. “She’s seen it go from my playing in parks in the West Village to playing Carnegie Hall, so I think on that level she appreciates that I’ve been able to grow something and do all of it,” he says. “Musically, she has really an open mind. I don’t think she’s sitting around listening to my records — but I do think she appreciates where I’m coming from.”
Asked if she’s ever suggested a guest musician for one of his records, Zanes laughs heartily: “No, but I wish she would — that would be pretty funny.” He guesses she’d recommend New York electronica duo Ratatat, electrofunk band Chromeo or possibly Jackson Browne.
Though the studio projects are fun, Zanes enjoys his raucous performances even more. “That’s the best part for kids too,” he says. “The live experience is really where it’s at. We’ve played with youth orchestras, African drum ensembles and mariachi groups. We have a lot of neat groups join us when we tour. That’s the best part of performing, being able to play for people and work with young musicians as we do it. It’s great.”