Beware, oh people-who-go-to-huge-rock-festivals. There’s an intruder. And, if you’re paying attention to where you’re reading this (and you look like you are), you’ll guess who it is.
(Cue the piercing violin notes à la Psycho.)
Yes, friends, at least two huge rock festivals — Chicago’s Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits Festival — have made a real commitment to music for children, bringing in kid-friendly bands from all over the country. While these bands are far from a complete list of up-and-comers in family-friendly music, they do represent a pretty amazing lineup of artists. Having lived in Austin for several years in the ’90s, we jumped at the chance to check out ACL’s kids’ stage — cleverly denominated “Austin Kiddie Limits”; Lollapalooza’s equivalent is “Kidzapalooza.”
And we weren’t disappointed, even though we only attended one of the three days, and even though Austin in September boasts temperatures of, oh, I don’t know, 245 degrees. Below you’ll find a quick tour of those we saw.
First up was The BummKinn Band, a country band for kids. They’re based in California, but worry not: they’ve got enough Texas in them to make you forget they’re from anywhere near 90210. Their first record, Starry Skies and Lullabies, was charming if, I thought, not quite consistent enough to be great. Live, they played a lot of their new songs (from a still-in-progress CD), and the new work promises to get up to that “great” place, with a bit more rock surrounding the country nougat center. Their stage show was fun and cute, with humor evoking the skits from the “Grand Ol’ Opry.” BummkinnBand.com
We then sneaked over to see the Ike Reilly Assassination. Ike Reilly is very, very far from being family friendly, but oh, how he rocked. As I noted to a friend afterwards, the score stood at Ike Reilly: 1, my butt: 0. But, to emphasize: Do not buy this for your children, or at least don’t blame me if you do. But do buy it for yourself. IkeReilly.com
After polluting our children’s minds with Reilly for a bit, we returned to see Jambo. I hadn’t heard anything by this band — led by Steve Pierson and inspired by his adorable daughter, who is the subject of their best song, “Lucy’s Parade” — but his rootsy rock (with a hint of blues) is catchy and instantly accessible. Maybe more than most, this is a band — they bounce stuff off of each other and are tight without being robotic. Their new record is produced by Tor Hyams, who also booked the festival (and Kidzapalooza) and sat in on keyboards with several bands; he knows a good band when he hears it. Jambo is one. MySpace.com/jambojam
We finished the festival day with Farmer Jason, the kids’-music alter ego of legendary alt-country performer Jason Ringenberg (of Jason and the Scorchers). In his farmer persona, Ringenberg plays friendly silly loping country music with an emphasis on gentle humor and audience participation. His CDs (most recently Rocking in the Forest) are a bit more rock-oriented than his live show, which, at least at ACL/AKL, was just him and an acoustic guitar. In either setting, he’s a hoot. FarmerJason.com
But the energy peak of the day came a little earlier, in the form of two sets from the Sippy Cups, a mind-blowing band from the Bay Area. The Sippy Cups take the unlikely concept — psychedelic rock for kids — and make it work better than you can imagine, especially live. Just to give you one hint of what the show is like, one member — “Sippy Doug” — is strictly part of the stage show, with juggling, unicycling, dressing as a robot and (at different times) a confused British person riding a horse, and dancing. Now, take whatever you’re picturing from that description and imagine it working incredibly well, enthralling parent and kid alike. The key is that the band, far from relying on a crazy stage show, flat-out rocks with great covers (“I Wanna Be Elated”) and tremendous originals (“Springtime Fantastic” is one of my favorite songs of any genre in the last two years). TheSippyCups.com
The kids’ stages aren’t going to take over the festivals any time soon — not when they’re booking Arcade Fire and Dylan and the like. But next summer, if you’re looking for a road trip, these shows are a good family-friendly option. Just bring plenty of sunscreen and water.
Bill Childs is a law professor in western Massachusetts who proudly answers “Minnesota!” when asked where he’s from. He and his 8-year-old daughter produce a kids’ music radio show, “Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child,” weekly; check it out at SpareTheRock.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.