HalloWeenies and the Dad Rock Movement

Kids’ music has come a long way since the days of ‘Puff The Magic Dragon.’ These days it’s the rockers, not the folkies, who play Pied Piper to the under-10 set. Leading the Dad Rock movement is former Del Fuegos front man Dan Zanes, whose successful secondary career making music “for kids and grown-ups together” surely inspired They Might Be Giants whom, once They Turned Into Parents, took their own childlike detour with the DVD and CD Here Come The ABCs.

Up in Phoenicia, we’re fortunate to have our very own rocking kids musician. I vaguely knew Uncle Rock by his real name, Robert Burke Warren, back in New York City several years ago, and have gotten to know him as a close friend since we moved up to the Catskills: I won’t pretened this is an entirely impartial review.

Robert’s credentials as a musician are many: he’s played with The Fleshtones, with Hub Moore and John Moore, released a couple of solo albums, taken the lead role in the London production of the Buddy Holly story, and is the kind of person you rarely see without a guitar in hand. But his credentials with kids are equally compelling: after moving up here permanently a couple of years back, he took a job at a pre-school where, he notes on his web site, “I was happy to be reminded that most kids have an innate interest in things like ghosts, wild animals, villains, misadventure and mystery.”

As Uncle Rock, Warren has found a way to combine his consuming passions with humor, grace and style. Admittedly, some of his songs are aimed squarely at the pre-school set, like ‘Shoe Bandit’ and ‘I’m a Pirate!’ But others throw an adult perspective into the kid’s narration. For example, ‘Too Many Presents,’ from his debut album Here We Go, notes not only how kids are saturated with gifts these days but that “they’re all made of plastic, come from across the ocean, tomorrow they’ll be broken,” while on ‘Rock and Roll Babysitter,’ from his far superior new album Plays Well With Others, he notes the tattoo on a young woman’s back more readily than might his own son. That kid, Jack, who is pictured on the new album cover, nonetheless sings along exuberantly as he and his friends do on many other songs, lending the album the requisite air of (occasionally tuneless!) authority.

Uncle Rock Plays Well With Others, complete with Who cover version. Available, appropriately enough, from CDBaby

Warren reveals his roots on Plays Well With Others with a medley of ‘Magic Carpet Ride,’ ‘Hey Bo Diddley and ‘Magic Bus’; he also proves capable of a tender country-like closing ballad, ‘Connected,’ that is, at heart, a universal and potentially crossover love song. Still, my personal favorite from Plays Well With Others is ‘Sugar Talkin’ (“Sugar says no I won’t go to bed, I’m too busy going insane”) which I can’t help but hear as a counterpart to Soulwax’s dance hit ‘E Talking’ – the difference being I guess, that kids talking crap while high on sugar at least are not breaking the law.

Warren performs so regularly as Uncle Rock in the Catskills that it’s easy to take his presence for granted. But every now and then there’s a concert that warrants attention, as with last Saturday’s event at Woodstock’s Colony Café. It served not only as a Halloween kids’ costume party but also a commemoration of El Dia de Los Muertos, the Mexican day of the dead “in which,” wrote Robert in his invite, “people of all ages celebrate those who have passed on, carrying photographs of the deceased into cemeteries and having picnics, eating candy skulls, drinking hot chocolate, and talking about the dearly departed.” Not the usual selling pitch to five year olds, it’s true.

Idle worship: KT Legnini’s kid joins her onstage as she joins in with Uncle Rock!

By the time we arrived at the Colony Café, from another kids’ Halloween party (!), the English poet and painter Adrian Frost had already performed, as had Story Laurie McIntosh, and any morbidity had given way to a particularly exuberant performance,with Uncle Rock backed for once by near enough a full old-fashioned band. In front of him, a room full of under-10s were kids were dressed as pirates, vampires, superheroes and, in our 11-year old Campbell’s case, as Jango Fett; several had rehearsed lines for which they were invited to join in on stage. And when our adult friend KT Legnini contributed backing vocals, her own little boy promptly followed on stage her to stay close, then disappeared under her dress in the midst of her vocal! There were no security on hand to intervene.

Highlights of this particular Uncle Rock set included ‘Getting Big Blues’ and ‘Disco Nap,’ complete with universally identifiable nightclub “whoop whoop” refrain. The finale was a pertinent song about El Dia de los Muertos: ‘Picnic In The Graveyard,’ from Plays Well With Others, which has a delightful singalong chorus for which a half-dozen kids joined in on stage, acknowledging, unwittingly or otherwise, the circle of life.

The kids are alright. You knew that was coming, didn’t you?

It was a stirring scene, the kind that makes us happy to involve our children in our community. Anyone can sing songs to kids, but not too many can play so well with them. Uncle Rock has that gift. And the kids, as you know, are always alright.

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October 2021