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For parents, the phrase "children's music" too often evokes horrific memories of long car rides listening to tinny renditions of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
But the musicians behind Jamarama Live!, a touring kid-friendly rock show landing Saturday at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre, are changing that perception.
"It's not Barney, you know what I mean?" says Lisa Mathews, singer for the happy-rock duo Milkshake, one of the tour's performers. "There's, like, cool variety going on there."
Dan Zanes, whose career performing folk-tinged "family music" is a world away from his days fronting the '80s roots-rock band the Del Fuegos, says his goal is to find music that's enjoyable for all ages.
"Songs about learning to tie your shoes or eat with a fork, it's hard for me to find an emotional connection to those," Zanes said from his record label's office in Brooklyn. "And songs about my old girlfriend, which is what I spent 10 years doing in a rock band, that's not going to mean anything to a 4-year-old."
The acts performing at Jamarama reflect the diversity of kids' music today. Zanes, the headliner, plays slightly updated versions of traditional folk songs, from the likes of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. Milkshake performs bouncy rock songs written by Mathews (who takes the stage in a tutu and combat boots) and guitarist Mikel Gehl. The opening act, Buck Howdy, is a bona fide singing cowboy.
All three acts promise a lot of fun for audience members, no matter what their ages.
"I feel great if it's somewhat like a little Grateful Dead show, where everybody's singing along and people just spontaneously hop out of their seats and dance in the aisles," Zanes said. "I don't think there's been more than a handful of experiences where people have just sat quietly in their seats."
Milkshake hands out "milkshakers" - plastic bottles filled with rice - so children can shake along with the rhythm. "We try to get them to be part of the band from the get-go," Mathews said.
For "Bottle of Sunshine," the title track of Milkshake's most recent album, confetti cannons shoot bits of yellow paper into the audience. "It's like instant glee," Mathews said from Las Vegas, where Jamarama played Saturday.
And Howdy reports his biggest hit with audiences is a comically rude little number called "Baked Beans." (Think of the campfire scene from "Blazing Saddles" and you get the idea.)
"I get the audience to make the appropriate inappropriate sounds," Howdy said from Southern California, where he's developing a TV show. "It's amazing, because the parents get into it as much as the kids. It really is wild. Sometimes I'll be able to look out and see these kids looking at their parents and going, 'I didn't know you could make that sound.' . . . That's why we are rootin' tootin' cowboys."
And the fun isn't confined to the stage. Tour organizers will fill the lobby with booths for face-painting, drawing, storytelling or tumbling. Characters from the Noggin cable channel, the tour's sponsor, will be in attendance, too: Miffy the bunny, Franklin the turtle and Moose A. Moose.
"We wanted it to be an experience, so we made it educational and interactive and entertaining," said Dana DuFine, Jamarama's co-creator.
It was DuFine's daughter Emma, then 2 1/2 years old, who inspired Jamarama. DuFine was letting Emma watch Noggin one morning a year ago, and noticed the music videos playing between the preschool-friendly programs.
"She looked at me and said, 'I want to go see these bands, Mommy,' " DuFine recalled. "I said, 'Which one would you like to see?' . . . She looked at me and said, 'All of them.' "
DuFine and her business partner, David Codikow, are familiar with booking music tours - they created the punk-rocking Warped Tour, now in its 11th year, and the Down From the Mountain tour (which featured bluegrass performers from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack). Within six months, they put together the first leg of Jamarama on the East Coast last fall, with Noggin's resident superstar, singer/guitarist Laurie Berkner, as the headliner.
Mathews, who with Gehl used to perform in bars in the band Love Riot, said playing for kids is a lot harder than for grown-ups.
"The kids are a more demanding audience," Mathews said. "You gotta please them, and you don't have much time. There's a small window here before they are like hitting a wall and going, 'You're boring me, Mom. Let's go.' They don't just walk out, they start crying."
Music: Upbeat versions of classic folk songs. "Part of the fun is to find the old songs and to rediscover an emotional connection to them, and turn them on their heads, spin them around and bring them up into the new century."
How he started: "When my daughter was born, I wanted the shared experience of music we could all be excited by."
Music: Bouncy rock songs. "We're a rock band for kids," says singer Lisa Mathews (pictured with guitarist Mikel Gehl).
How they started: "We wrote it for our kids. . . . Kids need music that's all their own, that talks about things they care about, but in an intelligent, fun, hip fashion."
Music: Cowboy songs. "I've become convinced that somewhere in everybody's genetic code, there's a cowboy."
How he started: "I'd done it as a hobby for, golly, 20 years. It just was really a fluke that, all of a sudden, I got discovered."
Sing and dance
Jamarama Live! is Saturday at 2 p.m., at the Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City. Doors open at 1 p.m. Tickets are $22.50, available at the Capitol Theatre Box Office or through ArtTix. For more information, go to http://www.jamaramalive.com.