Three songs into Night Time!, Dan Zanes's new album for kids, the former Del Fuegos frontman teams with Father Goose (West Indies emcee Rankin' Don) to trade lines and duet on a cover of the buddies-forever chestnut "Side by Side." In the final minute, shucking and jiving like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in a number from one of that pair's Road movies, the two recall how they became lost in the woods one evening en route to a "bashment."
Zanes: It's getting a little dark in here, isn't it?
Goose: Yeah, creepy.
Zanes: You have the directions, right?
Goose: I thought you had the directions.
Zanes: Hmmm, I'm kind of hungry. You have any snacks?
Goose: Didn't you bring the snacks?
Zanes: Oh, no.
Just then fireflies appear, spelling out "THIS WAY" for the duo, who soon hear the sound of a trombone, and finally stumble across the elusive party. "This must be the place," says Zanes. "Fireflies and music and, hopefully, they have snacks."
Charming, nonprecious, and relentlessly fun, Night Time! segues from standards such as "Side by Side" and "What a Wonderful World" into Zanes's entertaining original compositions, plus a handful of traditional songs (from South Africa, the Caribbean, Scotland) that Zanes, now 41, learned ages ago as a kid at summer camp.
Not exactly the career track one would have forecast for Zanes back in the Eighties, when he led the Del Fuegos through four albums' worth of gritty rockers, reigning briefly as college-radio darlings. After the band disintegrated by 1990 and Zanes's solo debut failed to snare a significant audience, he turned to kiddie music. "I walked into Tower Records to buy something for my daughter," Zanes explains via telephone in New Hampshire, "thinking I'd find the same kind of music that I loved as a kid -- Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly -- but it was all tied to TV shows and movies. There was nothing like the handmade stuff that I grew up with."
To fill the void, Zanes and other musician dads in his New York City neighborhood began the Wonderland String Band, performing at schools and parties. He recorded a cassette of their work, which people copied and passed on. When a record company expressed interest, Zanes demurred. "I'd released five albums already," he notes, "and I didn't own the master tapes to any of them." Instead he established his imprint, Festival Five, issuing Rocket Ship Beach in 2000. Family Dance followed the next year. Now comes Night Time!, with Aimee Mann, Lou Reed, John Doe, and Dar Williams joining Zanes.
In concert they whip up a hootenanny for all, far from the troubadour image Zanes had envisioned. "I quickly discovered that it's more like a Grateful Dead show," he deadpans, "with people walking around and singing along and talking with their neighbor." A real bashment! "And ultimately it turns into a dance party."