Ah, Austin, a city I've called home (or home-away-from-home, or home-away-from-home-away-from-home) for well over twenty years.
Which means that I'm entitled to feelings of "when-the-hey-did-they-build-this-thing?," even if I was just there a couple months ago. Driving from the airport to the Glenn at the Backyard, site of the first Austin Kid's Day, held this past Labor Day weekend, I was constantly amazed at the width of the freeways and the number of power centers I passed. (Of course, this being Austin, many of those power centers are tastefully tucked in behind some trees so they're not nearly so noticeable from the road.)
I take that brief detour (metaphorically) to suggest that Austin, while it might have been able to put together a music festival 20 years ago, it certainly wasn't at the point where it might have supported a long afternoon of quality kids' music.
I was at the show courtesy of Aunty E, who paid for my flight and got me into the show. I made it to the show early, which is to say, early as compared to my schedule -- the flight arrived early and traffic on Labor Day weekend was very light.
I unfortunately wasn't early for the first act of the day, Austin'sJoe McDermott. Since I knew I was going to hear him in a couple weeks, I was only a little disappointed. Still, McDermott, who was playing solo, had a crowd of kids up front at the stage, eating up his "I Got Stuck In An Elevator," a story song which requires lots of bouncing on the part of the kids. Oh, there was a nice little joke involving the "The Girl From Ipanema." And then he sang in front of a microphone that was about, oh, two feet high, as if he'd stolen some equipment from a kids karaoke bar. Even from a distance, and if only for very briefly, you could tell that McDermott was an experienced entertainer, with the kids really getting into the performance.
I didn't catch much else from Joe because I was going to conduct some interviews (watch this space in the weeks to come for those). Luckily for me those interviews were held in a covered porch, which meant that I didn't actually get rained on.
Yes, those clouds weren't hanging around merely to make my photograph of the stage setup that much more atmospheric.
I interviewed all the day's performers, which took awhile. I could hear Austin's Biscuit Brothers playing, though, during my later interviews and they were still on stage when I appeared back at the main amphitheatre. The Brothers (real names Allen Robertson and Jerome Schoolar) actually started performing for kids starting back in 2000, long before their PBS TV show got going. (And they have an even longer non-Biscuit adult career.) So they, too, had a devoted fan base and quite a bit of experience playing for the younguns. I enjoyed the few minutes of their act that I caught, though I was most amused by how the kids followed the Brothers (along with Buttermilk Biscuit), clearly enthralled.
As I waited for Trout Fishing in America to setup, I strolled around the grounds again. I was most impressed with the additional touches added to keep the kids and families amused between (and during) sets. Besides the expected festival touches such as the merch tent, tables for local arts organizations and charities, and a food vendor or two, the show's producers also sprung for a bouncy tent, face painters, and -- this probably was the most popular thing if my estimates of line length were of any accuracy -- a balloon animal guy. When you're setting up a festival that might keep families there four hours or more, distractions -- any distractions -- are key, and they filled the bill in that regard. I'm tellin' you, the line for the balloon guy was nuts.
Next up and a little earlier than expected was Arkansas' Trout Fishing in America. As much experience as Joe McDermott and the Biscuit Brothers have playing for kids, Keith and Ezra have them all beat, doing it for more than 30 years. It shows. They have their stage banter honed to a fine degree, amusing both the parents and the kids. They ran through a set of some of their most popular tunes, recent and old. (I was also impressed by the richness of the sound they produced with just the two of them on stage -- Keith on bass and Ezra on guitar or banjo.) They played a slightly rough version of a song ("all the words, most of the chords") from their in-development musical on manners -- it dealt with table manners and was pretty good. They wrapped up a little early, and then we waited for the main act.
Yes, after hearing from three seasoned performers earlier in the day, the headliner was Aunty E (AKA Erin Duvall), who was younger than all the other performers. Oh, and she was performing a good four hours after the show had started -- we all know how kids deal with doing something for four hours straight. (Again, the power of balloon animals.) And the rain, which had pretty much held off during the Trout set, started again shortly into her set.
In other words, I was a little surprised that the crowd was as large as it was. Some families may have simply wanted to see who this new performer was, but there were at least a few who had clearly seen Duvall perform as Aunty E in the past and wanted to see her again.
Aunty E pulled out all the stops, with a full backing band (three backup singers, a guy on saxophone, drums, guitar, Allen Robertson ditching the Biscuit Brother regalia to play keyboard) and some dancers. The band itself sounded great. (They did an excellent version of "Three is a Magic Number.") I still think the family music field is wide open for more artists to bring full bands on tour (even limited tours), because there's definitely something appealing to hearing a full band. A full band can, for different reasons, entertain both kids and adults. (The dancers, well, they were a nice idea but I think they probably could've used a little more practice.)
In the end, though, the success of Aunty E as a live act will rise (or fall) on the talent of Erin Duvall. I would be lying if I said that Duvall's songs (written with Chas Vergauwen) for Aunty E were as appealing as, say, Trout's or McDermott's. Let's be fair -- those acts have been writing songs for kids for a loooong time (longer in Trout's case than Duvall's been alive). To expect Duvall to write songs as compelling or as fun as them right out the gate would be unfair (and, well, unrealistic). I especially liked one Duvall had written for an album for adults ("Standing"), but the rest was fairly standard kids' fare, geared entirely to the kids. It won't drive the parents crazy, but I don't see many parents leaving the disk running in the car's CD player after dropping the kids off at school. (I'd also note that the songs seem like a pretty good for an animated series, which is definitely one of the goals of Aunty E and her producers.)
As a performer, Duvall worked hard to bring the crowd into the show. Like I said, I think she had her work cut out for her given her late performing time and the rain (and humidity) and she did pretty good -- there were some pretty starstruck kids in the audience. Duvall has a sweet voice and a fun stage presence. In other words, she's a pretty good performer, which bodes well for her future.
She wrapped up her set as the rain stopped, and even though they announced that she'd be signing autographs and I was curious to see how her little fans would react, I figured that 4+ hours at the show was enough for me. So off I went to my mom's house in the cooling but still humid evening.
Thanks again to Aunty E and to Alyssa from Red Consultancy for their assistance. It was a good time. I think both Austin Kid's Day and Aunty E have a future ahead of them...