In some ways, nothing has changed for Dan Zanes since he was leading roots rock band the Del Fuegos in the 1980s. He's still hitting the road with his group in a van, still playing shows where the audience fills up an enthusiastically bouncing mosh pit.
Except that these days, the mosh pit is filled with pre-schoolers. The roots rock has been replaced by infectious new versions of American folk and classic songs. And Zanes, whose closest brush with fame playing for adults was a couple songs that made the midsection of the Billboard charts, is now a household name in family music, beloved by kids and parents grateful that they can actually enjoy the same music as their offspring.
"The hours are different, the band is better, but the spirit is the same," says Zanes, 46, from a van heading to several New England concerts last week. He hits Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday afternoon (though not in a van). ‘‘We're playing music we have an emotional attachment to and we want everyone to be a part of it and have it feel like a party."
It was definitely a party at Dan Zanes and Friends' concert at the Arsht Center last fall, when a mass of dancing kids took over the Knight Concert Hall stage, bringing Zanes' participatory music-for-everyone philosophy to new heights by banging the drums and trying to join the confounded band.
Zanes took it pretty much in stride -- though he did have to separate enthusiastic preschoolers from the accordion and saxophone.
"That kind of chaos reminds me that rock 'n' roll is not that far behind me," he says. "The spirit of it is all around us."
It was a do-it-yourself rock spirit that sent Zanes on a new path a few years after his daughter Anna, now a budding punk guitarist, was born in 1994. The Del Fuegos broke up in 1990, and Zanes, disillusioned with the pop grind, took a break, renovating a house in Brooklyn and immersing himself in gospel, bluegrass and Jamaican music.
He wanted to play for his daughter folk songs by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Leadbelly, music that he grew up listening to and singing with his family and friends in Concord, N.H.
"It's perfect family music, a mix of old and new songs, they sounded social like people recorded them in their house, they draw on a variety of traditions," Zanes says. "But I couldn't find the sound I heard in my head."
ZANES' NEW SOUND
So he started making that sound himself. His friends were doubtful: "I would tell people what I was up to and I think they felt sorry for me, like I would be singing songs about learning to tie your shoes."
He made 300 cassette tapes to give to friends and neighbors. He also made a solo album.
"No one cared about the solo record," Zanes says. "But everyone wanted more copies of this cassette tape I made for fun."
That cassette became Rocket Ship Beach in 2000, and it set the template for the music of Dan Zanes and Friends: children's songs like a Mother Goose medley with dancehall rapper Father Goose; folk songs like Erie Canal; American classics like Sidewalks of New York (with a kindergarten chorus) and Over the Rainbow; originals, celebrity guests (Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega), and an irresistible sense of fun, sweetness and wry groove.
Since then Zanes has put out seven more albums, with guests that range from Lou Reed and Loudon Wainwright III to the Kronos Quartet and the Blind Boys of Alabama, earning a Grammy for 2006's Catch That Train and plenty a plethora of rave reviews.
More importantly, Dan Zanes and Friends are a hit with a merciless audience.
"It's gotta be fun, cause if it's not fun kids are gonna go look for something that's fun," Zanes says. "That really keeps us on our toes."
In their latest recording, Nueva York! Zanes explores the Latin American music that he sees as the newest part of the American music tradition, with songs from Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and more. "It's a continuation of this exploration of the music that feels like American music to me," he says. "America is changing -- we're certainly not all singing in English anymore."
Zanes' Spanish still has a gringo accent, but in the exuberance of son jarocho and cumbia, and the enthusiastic dancers at shows at Latin clubs in New York and visits to Mexico, he found the same participatory energy that has always drawn him to music.
"It feels like rock and bluegrass -- the spirit is so communal, and the excitement is so high," he says. "It's just exciting to make those connections looking south."
A year and a half ago he added Mexican singer Sonia de los Santos to the band. Santos, 26, who started as a musical comedy actress in Mexico, has been learning her own traditional music playing with Zanes. But she's thrilled to see audiences singing along to the music of her childhood.
"It feels so good when you see families raising hands -- we're from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia -- or we're not, but we're learning to speak Spanish," Santos says. ‘‘That means a lot to me, and to feel like a part of that is great."
Zanes' funky family community has grown to include the original monolith of commercial children's entertainment, Disney. He's working on a pilot for the cable channel Playhouse Disney, where his videos already are a staple.
Zanes may sport post-punk spikey hair, but he's still family friendly. "Dan may be unconventional in terms of his look and persona," Nancy Kanter, senior vice president of Playhouse Disney Worldwide, says by phone from her Los Angeles office. "But his message fits perfectly with the Disney message of families doing things together."
COMING TO MIAMI
In Miami, Zanes will appear Saturday morning at the children's store Genuis Jones in the Design District, and the group will perform at a community center in Homestead, Miami Children's Hospital, and Greynolds Park Elementary school.
Participation is key for Zanes. He still believes in punk's anyone-can-play spirit. And two of his favorite songs from childhood are his father's off-key renditions of Bluetail Fly and Danny Boy.
For Zanes, his music is not just for kids, but for families, an invitation for everyone to dance, sing and play together.
"I totally trust [music's] power to change people and change people's lives," Zanes says. "What I feel like we do really well is help spread our enthusiasm for music-making and the joyous possibilities of it all. We used to be such a musical country and now there's not as much participation as consuming."
She points out that the channel has expanded its musical offerings to include acts like They Might Be Giants, a hip '80s duo that now makes children's music and has done a theme song for the Mickey Mouse Club.
It helps that Zanes also appeals to parents.
"You do hear over and over, 'My kid loves so and so but I can't stand it.' " says Kanter. "When there is an artist parents feel they can enjoy with their kid it's so much more meaningful."
Zanes, who says he once regularly advised people to toss out their TVs, says he's changed his mind.
"I still think the live experience is the crucial experience," he says. "But for the majority of families, particularly working families, their only access to culture and me is through TV. Given that I'm very clear on what my message is, which is music making as a joyous experience that's open to everyone and is a way to connect with each other, if I can take TV and create something where that message comes through I can reach all these families that won't know about me any other way. And if I can inspire other families to make music and be curious it's worth it."