I've been to a lot of great concerts in my life -- Bruce Springsteen, Buddy Guy, U2. One of the key factors is the feeling that the crowd is having a shared experience -- amazement at Bruce's endurance, Guy's prowess, or U2's yearning. But that communal experience is one that ends up being focused on the performer(s) on stage (or not, as Guy ended up his concert jamming on the sidewalk in front of the Cats Cradle in Chapel Hill (back when it was in Chapel Hill) while his band played on inside).
The wonder of a Dan Zanes concert, then, is that he produces a very communal experience that isn't so focused on him. Instead, the community itself is the communal experience...
It started in the long line to get into downtown Tucson's Rialto Theatre (whose Frequently Asked Questions is a hoot-and-a-half, even if you never plan to see a show there). Lots of families saying "hi" to one another. That wasn't really the case for us, seeing as we drove two hours from Phoenix to see the show, but I'm guessing that a Dan Zanes concert -- especially one in a new area for him -- has that effect on people. "Hey," they're saying, "there are other Dan Zanes nuts just like us. And we're at a theatre 4 days after an Ice Cube show. Cool. I think."
The communal vibe continued indoors. We brought our DZ Flea ukelele, and so I talked with a guy ahead who also brought his. A guy next to me talked about how it looked like a Chilean stringed instrument made out of a turtle shell. Somebody passed out flyers for a preschool fundraiser.
And then the band entered, walking from the back through the front, playing "Sidewalks of New York." They disappeared stage left, Dan Zanes came on stage alone, and the party truly started.
I use the word "party" deliberately, because Zanes must've used it two dozen times during the set. He pleaded several times with the lighting person to increase the lights on the audience -- he wanted to see the audience, not play at them. But party it was -- it took two or three songs for the kids to start congregating up front, but eventually the area between the stage and the folding chairs was decently filled with pogoing kids.
More reserved kids (like, say, our daughter) took their time, but eventually couldn't control themselves and dashed for the side aisles and danced there. I spent a good part of the concert's last half dancing with my daughter on the side of the theatre. That's what I mean about the focus not being on Zanes and the band (who, I might add, were all excellent) -- we had a great time, but it wasn't because we were focused on Zanes.
The set list? Ah, the newshound in me wanted to write everything down, but the enjoy-er in me said, "Relax." So I relaxed. The set list did cover every single Zanes family album (including Parades and Panoramas and Sea Music). Zanes is lucky in that he doesn't have one or two huge hits he feels like he needs to play every time. As a result, whatever he plays will satisfy almost all his audience.
He brought a couple special guests. "Salvador" sang and danced a folk dance a bit, but I loved the mariachi band he brought in. Mariachis make almost everything sound better. That's one thing I really dig about Zanes -- he can bring in a mariachi band and it doesn't sound out of place. And when Father Goose came out (I'd forgotten him), that did add an extra jolt to the show -- he's a great ace in the hole to have.
And then, like that, the show ended with Zanes and company striding out the way they came in. The crew signed autographs in the lobby, with Zanes standing, mobbed, outside in Tucson's heat. Yes, his suit was that green. And he was very gracious with each concertgoer holding a t-shirt or ukelele case to sign.
It was a great concert, but I didn't expect anything less. Dan Zanes has made community a cornerstone of his all-ages musical philosophy -- his concerts are simply an extension of that vision. It's enough to make you dance.