[29 January 2003]
The family that plays together stays together. Those that caught Seattle-to-New York rock family émigrés the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players during their residency at a hip Brooklyn performing arts space recently can attest to the homespun power that this pop phenom holds. On the surface, this musical mother, father and daughter may have some of the retro kitsch appeal that the Partridges or the Bradys retain in our televised memories, but they’re much more hardcore. And no, I don’t mean “punk” or “edgy” in that foul-mouthed, heavily marketed and state-of-constant-re-run Osborne kind of way.
While the Trachtenburgs are fast gaining on said family of darkness in terms of celebrity with an appearance last year on the Conan O’ Brien Show, opening gigs for quirk masters They Might Be Giants and an endorsement by Comedy Central, they speak to a different set of family values. In his Viceland.com column, My America, comedian David Cross writes, “Now that’ s a way to raise a family and conduct your life that most of us either haven’t thought of or simply lack the imagination and courage to carry out.”
Part of the appeal of the Trachtenburgs is that they are proof positive of an urban idealist utopia for the new nuclear family. This means the kind of life that is political in the seemingly mundane. The Trachtenburgs buy organic, they recycle and make their own clothes, support local businesses, and home school their eight-year-old daughter Rachel, who just happens to also be their drummer. Even the band is a little unconventional, its genesis having happened after mother Tina stumbled upon some vacation slides at an estate sale. Father Jason viewed the slides of a 1959 Japanese mountain trip and was hit with the inspiration for a song with a very similar title. He composes the music, based on the photo slides of strangers, on keyboard and guitar. He and daughter Rachel then sing humorous lyrics and play instruments while Mom operates the slide machine.
Arriving at Galapagos forty minutes to show time, I find a line that snakes twice around the bar and is fast spilling out the front door. People talk agitatedly on their cell phones about the wait. In front of me, a couple argues, the man slurring at his girlfriend that it hadn’t been his idea to come. I feel sorry for her as she looks sadly away. Later I would see him having something resembling a good time. People slowly begin to file into the concrete back room past the diminutive Rachel, which inspires a few wisecracks about child labor laws and smoking in front of minors.
Opener Schwervon! is a goofy pop duo that bring to mind a “Shiny Happy People” kind of R.E.M. and a more competent Beat Happening. Guitarist Matt Mason remains deadpan even while singing such lines as, “Oh for heaven’ s sake, I wanna shake and bake.” This and his stooped posture make me think of a cartoon turtle that pokes his head out every now and then to offer a timid joke. Drummer Nan Turner belts out the tunes brightly, every now and then dipping into a bluesy kind of growl. Their set is light and fun, but maybe a little too long.
For the last two numbers, Rachel Trachtenburg is brought onstage to play bass. The audience titters a little when she asks Mason in a chirpy voice if he has a pick. Like most of them, I don’t know what to expect from this seemingly pint-size wunderkind. But Rachel performs with a poised confidence, playing each note in time without any of the syrupy precociousness that is expected from children in showbiz.
When Rachel takes the stage again with her parents, she is behind a drum kit offering up funny rim shots to her father’s jokes and vaudeville rhythms. As the Slideshow Players do their thing, the space becomes warm and inviting like a living room. Jason Trachtenburg acts as the good host by offering up excited stuttering explanations to each song, including one that make the claim that “This may just be the only song you will ever hear that talks about the Vietnam War, Watergate and eggs.” Over the next hour we’re treated to odes penned to retired military nurses, birthday parties and a McDonald’s internal board meeting. The combination of hokey slides, Jason’s warbling voice and Rachel’s gleeful soprano set the bearded fellow next to me into a series of knee-slapping guffaws. It’s hard to know whether father Trachtenburg is kidding or sincere when he exclaims after the end of a particularly melody-challenged number that it is the best they have played it in weeks.
But this act is like homemade cookies, imperfect but made with love.