LIVE REVIEW AND INTERVIEW: Dan Zanes & Friends Lead Belly Project at Prospect Park Bandshell
  • WEDNESDAY, JUNE 15, 2016

  • Posted by: Jacob Swindell-Sakoor

Dan Zanes & Friends is sort of the oddball act that has stood the test of time in the family music world. Now when I say, oddball, I mean that as the best of compliments because who likes listening to musicians that stick to being normal? When you look at the core band and all of the accompanying acts that make up the Friends portion of the name, you'll see men and women of various backgrounds performing on stage. After going to the Prospect Park Bandshell this weekend, I quickly realized that Dan Zanes & Friends is the 2016 definition of not only family music but also folk music.

dan zanes and friends lead belly project


Although the show was great, to say the least, I admittedly was unable to arrive at the show until the very beginning of Dan Zanes & Friends set. I regret not being able to see the TADA! Youth Theater. However, when asking members of the audience about their performance I was told that they were entertaining and will surely go down as one of the best openers (if not overall performers) of the bandshells 2016 season.

dan zanes and friends lead belly project


Dan Zanes & Friends opened up with the energetic song More Yet featuring rapper/MC SHAislike. From this first song, it was apparent that the band's appeal lies in being able to entertain both adults and children. You know a band has got something special when the parents aren't rolling their eyes at the music their kids listen to.

dan zanes and friends lead belly project


After the opening song, Dan Zanes & Friends continued to delve deep into their Lead Belly project. Throughout the show frontman, Dan Zanes made it clear that this new phase in his career was about sharing the stage with other talented musicians. For songs such as Julianne Johnson and Red Bird, Dan featured Jendog Lonewolf and once again SHAislike respectively. Both MCs brought much-needed energy to an already lively set. After the MCs joined Dan Zanes & Friends on stage, they shared the stage once again with fellow family musician Father Goose (aka Rankin Don) for the song Polly Wee. For those that don't know these two musicians have been creating together since 2007 and don't show any signs of slowing down from this Saturdays performance.

dan zanes and friends lead belly project


After sharing the stage with a host of collaborators the core band closed out with a diverse range of songs. From performing a Lead Belly song about drivers safety entitled Relax Your Mind to classics (as well as Grammy-winning material) such as Catch That Train, this multiracial band knows how to close out a set. Before completely ending the show, Dan Zanes & Friends were able to get the majority of the crowd to create tunnels to dance to for the children. At first, the audience was slightly reluctant but they, of course, got into things and eventually tunnels that were slightly reminiscent of the old school Soul Train dance lines were created as the band sang their song Rock Island Line. After having the audience heavily interact, the band closed with a slow jam entitled Goodnight Irene. Instead of simply standing on stage and playing to close out the show, the band left the stage and continued to play and walked out into the crowd.

dan zanes and friends lead belly project


Overall the show was fantastic. Dan Zanes & Friends is able to stand out not only from family bands but most bands because of their creativity when it comes to crowd interactions. From teaching the audience choruses to new songs they haven't heard of having an MC rap and tap dance onstage, Dan Zanes & Friends surely hasn't run out of performance tricks since its inception in 2000. The performances work because the music is just music. When the band performs the false genre lines that we still hold onto are immediately blurred. Who would've thought that family music that takes inspirations from folk, rock, Hip-Hop, dancehall, (as well as more genres that I simply don't have the time to list) would work? Somehow Dan Zanes & Friends made it work this past Saturday so be sure to look out for their Lead Belly inspired album sometime soon.

dan zanes and friends lead belly project


After the show I was able to sit down with the bands frontman Dan Zanes and we were able to discuss topics such as the history and importance of Lead Belly in regards to folk music as well as the lack of diversity in the music industry. Check out the interview below:

JSS: So how far are you into the project right now?

DZ: Just wrapping it up. We have one more tune were gonna do with Lucinda Williams and there's a couple of MCs that are gonna come in. Shareef Swindell came and did his thing on two songs and Jendog Lonewolf is on another one and that really means a lot to me because I feel like that's what would be happening in folk music if Lead Belly was alive today. He'd certainly be collaborating with MCs. So I'm definitely lucky to have gifted MCs around.

JSS: So during Lead Belly's lifetime was he known to collaborate with a lot of different people?

DZ: Yeah he was. Once he got up to New York I think. He had an interesting circle of people that he knew. A lot of them were sort of the white lefties of the day that lived in the village. He had black friends, but he didn't have a ton of them. That wasn't predominantly his scene, but the white lefties here in New York really embraced him. I guess it would've been the Communists or the people who were doing a lot of work with the workers rights. They really appreciated him. You know, a lot, communities were operating in a different way. There was Bebop. There was a lot of stuff that was progressive and modern in the air.

dan zanes and friends lead belly project


JSS: What decade are we talking about? Just to put things in perspective

DZ: The '30s and '40s. You know I think that the folkies learned a lot from him. He taught a lot of people a lot of music.

JSS: Would you say that Lead Belly is a foundation of sorts for the folk music that we have today?

DZ: I think if you were to look at Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, you would cover all the ground that there is to cover pretty much. He learned songs like The Rock Isle Nine from a group of guys in prison. He knew a lot of the work songs. He taught Pete Seeger a lot of the material that he knew. Pete Seeger was sort of the next generation, but he and Lead Belly had quite a bit of overlap and Lead Belly was the teacher and he was the student. He's a huge part of the foundation of modern folk music and I would call him the godfather of modern family music too.

dan zanes and friends lead belly project


JSS: So why make the Lead Belly project instead of another Dan Zanes & Friends record?

DZ: I think it was because Ashley Philips, who played with me today, she came down with me a little over a year ago and we were invited to be a part of the Kennedy Center. It was Lead Belly's 125th anniversary of his birth. We went down there and we spent a lot of time hanging out with the people at Smithsonian Folkways and I just thought this is probably the time. There was momentum, there was interest, and no one had really covered his children's music and that was a big part of what he did. So I just started throwing it out there and everybody responded so positively.

JSS: You realized you were on to something?

DZ: Yeah I was like I haven't written any songs lately so let's do this!

dan zanes and friends lead belly project


JSS: So whats in the future for Dan Zanes & Friends after this Lead Belly project?

DZ: I think the thing that's in the future for us is to continue to work in a more collaborative and collective fashion. I think I've been the sort of front and center for a long time and I don't feel a strong need to be there anymore. As you could see today, the circle of musicians I have around me is wide. People are coming from a lot of different places, but family music as a genre is not a very diverse genre. I think it's time to use what momentum and leverage we have to try and give everybody some more access to that world. You know, everybody around that wants to. Maybe not by cutting records. Maybe we cut 45s. Maybe we make singles and videos. Just to give everybody in the neighborhood a chance to do it. I got my studio so there's no reason not to do it. Everythings stronger and better when there's more collaboration. So that's where it's all going.

JSS: Do you feel like there's any particular reason or reasons as to why there isn't a whole lot of access or diversity in terms of family music?

DZ: I think it's the same as everywhere. You know I think it's a reflection of the bigger system that's in place. It was easy for me. I got a great review in the New York Times magazine and you know if I were to trace back the steps as to why I got that review, it would have a lot to do with living in a white neighborhood and being connected to white writers for a white paper. Now I'm super grateful believe me, I'm grateful for all of it, but I can see that being a white person in this world gives me a lot of access. And for me, everything is stronger and better, and better for me too when there's more voices. When my band became a multiracial band of men and women the music got infinitely better. You know I started out playing with a couple other white dudes and once that shift happened, it just got better and better and that's why I do this. It's better for me, it's better for the music, and its a lot more fun.

dan zanes and friends lead belly project


JSS: You talk a lot about collaboration and just looking at the show today, you called it a living room set. Now are there any artists that you would love to work with?

DZ: You know Chuck D was just on this record and doing things with MCs has been incredible. It's been really kind of blowing my mind and not just Chuck D but also Shareef and JenDog. So, um, Rakim. He would be on my list (laughs). Bob Dylan and Rakim are on my list I guess.

JSS: Bob Dylan and Rakim together or separately?

DZ: Together would be nice. Yeah if I had the choice.

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