Here are two things you should know right off about Dan Zanes, two things that set him apart from the huge and festive field of people who have in the past few years begun making music for families and people of all ages in a way that is, frankly, changing the face of America, or the sound of it, at least. First, he is making homemade family music and encouraging similar behaviors in friends and neighbors. Second, he is the guy who is always interested in singing along with people, people everywhere.
Which brings us to his mission, if you can call it a mission: Dan is introducing his musical friends to his neighborhood friends and then showing everybody not just that, yes, they can play together but that they can also feel pretty good while doing so. In this sense, Dan is a Twenty-first Century version of the guy who in the old days used to conduct the town band from the gazebo, though in lieu of a gazebo he's playing places like Carnegie Hall and The Melbourne International Arts Festival, where no matter how you say it, good music is good. He is a ringmaster, introducing new songs and reconnecting people to songs that have always been there, and still are, just that people forgot about them.
For the record, Dan Zanes was born in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1961. He was a member of the Del Fuegos from the beginning to the end of the eighties. In 1994, he released a solo CD, "Cool Down Time", shortly after which he moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. with his wife and daughter, where he then released Rocket Ship Beach (2000), launching his own record label, Festival Five Records. The CD was an immediate hit with families around America, as well as with the New York Times Magazine, which said, "kids music works because it is not kids music; just music, music that's unsanitized, unpasteurized, that's organic even."
His next CD, Family Dance (2001) was comprised of songs that are difficult not to dance to, and featured Loudon Wainwright III, Rosanne Cash and a lot of dancing that you can't actually see but you can imagine. Next in the Festival Five family series came Night Time! (2002), featuring collaborations with Aimee Mann and Lou Reed, followed by the GRAMMY nominated House Party (2003), a rambunctious twenty-song collection that includes Deborah Harry, Bob Weir, and Philip Glass, as well as the Ruby Theater Company and Rankin Don (a.k.a Father Goose).
"Sea Music", a collection of maritime songs that was the first CD in the Festival Five Folk Series, and was cited in Rolling Stone's Hot Issue in the category of Hot Maritime Sounds. The next CD in the Folk Series, Parades and Panoramas: 25 Songs Collected by Carl Sandburg for The American Songbag is the disk on which Dan's scruffy troupe of musicians dragged the poet's 1927 collection of songs kicking and screaming into this century, with traditional instruments, with tuba-driven electric guitars, with whatever it takes.
The Grammy-award winning CD "Catch That Train"? is the latest in the Family Series (co-released by Starbucks/Hear Music), and is the one CD in America today that brings together the Kronos Quartet, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Father Goose, Dan's mother-in-law, and the children of South Africa's Agape Orphanage to sing Zulu folk songs, an old labor organizing tune, a song about the joys of farming the English countryside, and of course a few train songs. "Catch That Train"? features an instrumental mix that highlights cuatros and lap steels and does not in any way discourage the use of trombone. As usual, it's all in one book-length, lyric-and-chord-filled package.
And speaking of books, Dan is the author of two picture book collaborations with the artist Donald Saaf "Jump Up!"? and "Hello Hello"? (Little, Brown and Company Books), and he can be seen in the Dan Zanes and Friends concert video and DVD, entitled "All Around the Kitchen!" recorded in 2005 at the Knitting Factory, in New York City.
Lately, Dan has been spending his spare time with Spanish dictionaries, listening to salsa or merengue or norteno or anything along those lines.