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Dan Zanes: The Welcome Table

Dan Zanes
The Welcome Table
Festive Five

Dan Zanes might be happy to be considered the offspring of Mermaid Avenue-period Billy Bragg miraculously mated with Burl Ives or Raffi. In actuality he’s a former member of the Del Fuegos who came back with a critically acclaimed solo disc, became a dad and decided to write songs for kids. Zanes won a Grammy in 2007 for Children’s Musical Album and he had warming words for all musicians: “We have such power in the creative community. And I just hope that when we get back to our homes that we will sing some songs together. The more songs we sing together the better chance we have for a peaceful America, and an America where everyone feels accepted.”

That’s a noble speech and word is that Dan Zanes is a wacky, fun guy with an organic approach to making music, an admirable kind of fellow who steers clear of the corporate showbiz ethic. His new album holds true to his Grammy speech philosophy of singing together and accepting new arrivals to these shores with open arms (no Second Amendment pun intended). It’s hard to take issue with Zanes’chops, good-natured exuberance or well-meaning sincerity, but as The Welcome Table resembles such inoffensive, uber-wholesome, multi-cultural gospel music for an imaginary Amnesty International benefit hosted by Sesame Street characters, I simply must try.

Anyone who appreciates recognizable songs with clear arrangements and an honest, rootsy feel may enjoy this disc. It may even garner another Grammy nod for Zanes. It’s not for me, though, for several reasons. And, for the record, I feel the Grammy awards are an unreliable barometer of quality: a largely flatulent exercise designed to boost record sales and puff egos. Indeed, it seems accidental when they highlight a real gem (Dust to Digital’s Goodbye Babylon comes quickly to mind). More often than not, the award givers seem to spot good musicians, but fail to recognize that plenty of them make rather dull records. And The Welcome Table is just that, a pretty dull record of very good music made by some very good musicians. The album has a laid-back atmosphere which may be how real, natural, homemade music sounds to Dan Zanes, but I find it almost a limp, soppy cliche of real, natural, homemade music.

To further consider Zanes’ Grammy speech and musical philosophy, I watched a few of his videos on YouTube. Woah, I’m moving to Brookyln pronto. They got kids hugging each other for no reason and impromptu jam sessions breaking out all across the leafy rainbow pedestrian nirvana! But something makes me question whether or not children (or parents) really see this kind of music as the answer to the “too old for Teletubbies, told young for Britney” connundrum, especially since the Langley Schools Music Project already demonstrated that children are capable of expressing darker and lonelier feelings. It’s one thing to patronize children with jollity, quite another for adults to have to put up with it. What’s more, singing together in the hope of bringing forth a peaceful America where everyone feels welcome is all well and good, but maybe it overstates singers in an age when we need unity among plumbers, auto-mechanics, bakers, bankers and brewers. Don’t get me wrong, Zanes is onto something, and there are well-documented examples of the power of music. Think horn blasts at the walls of Jerico, drum beats at Congo Square, and the defiant songs which cost VIctor Jara his life. If we also toss in the reactionary efforts to reinforce a musical apartheid in the USA (typically to protect white kids from the wild effects of foreign rhythms) then the argument that music has the power to heal and promote understanding is not that wide of the mark. The trouble is, The Welcome Table lacks anything like the kind of potency of those examples. It lacks intensity and grace, perhaps mainly due to the choice of material. Sorry, but the world needs yet another version of “Jesus on The Mainline” like it needs another insurance company. Surely God must be getting bored by now? (“Sing unto him a new song” -Psalm 33).

The heart of The Welcome Table is undeniably in the right place, and the playing is technically excellent, but against a backdrop of recent events, the Joan Baez karaoke feel of tracks such as “Working on a Building”, while perfectly tuned and in harmony with universal good vibes, seems out of touch with the politics of oppression and empire. It’s like sodomy with a nightstick and people lingering in Guantanamo Bay for years without charge are just nasty stories that we can overcome by chanting them into oblivion. Perhaps Greil Marcus said it best when he chose Blind Willie Johnson as one of his choices for Most Important Recordings of The Century in The Wire magazine. In doing so he referred to music coming from seedy and dangerous places while noting that, “of course, no right-thinking multi-culturalist now believes that such a place ever existed”.

Still, Dan Zanes is trying to use his fine music to make a difference. He even wants us to consider shipping animals to people across the planet who need a sustainable food source [www.heifer.org]. This may be as admirable as the New Sanctuary Movement, the project which underlies this new release [http://www.newsanctuarymovement.org/]. And of course my political gripes are impractical. Zanes can’t be expected to record every happy, tolerant, come-together song with an accompanying disclaimer saying that, for example, the US-armed and financed Saddam Hussein, US foreign policy in Central America is a disgrace, the economic stranglehold on Cuba is in direct contradiction to China’s favored trading status, that the US are regularly cited by Amnesty International for our human rights record. No, even if he believed any of that, Zanes is quite reasonably all about moving forward positively and gathering like minds to the cause. And so his omissions are necessary and forgivable. But he’s just another musician with a viewpoint that we have to suffer.

What is intolerable, though, is any insipid version of gospel music. For whereas a real person ramming narrow Old Testament views down one’s throat can be downright obnoxious, music is a very different thing. And funnily enough, fire and brimstone condemnation and fear-mongering makes for truly electrifying music, whereas New Testament forgiveness is as dull as dishwater. The Reverend Nix’s “Black Diamond Express to Hell” is but one instance of glorious tripped-out visions of damnation and salvation. These are so much more urgent than attempts to articulate a message about the creation of tolerance and happy lands here on Earth. Dan Zanes knows gospel music can and should crackle with life. He must have heard Johnson’s Old Testament-style roar, had his heart melted by the twinkling accompaniment to Washington Phillips’ biblical narratives, and maybe has stood awed in the gospel tent at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where atheists and believers alike get goosebumps in the face of the unadorned soul power. Damn, (or should I say darn?) even the so-called commercial movie Ghost had the good taste to incorporate the unbridled wailing of the wonderful Dorothy Love Coates on the soundtrack. And ferocity didn’t die out with early gospel artists. David Childers’Blessed in An Unusual Way, from this decade, is an essential listen, marinated in grit and mystery.

Ghost also illustrates that the righteousness of a non-commercial stance has its limitations. Music made in an independent home-made spirit, away from the effects of commerce, can be brilliant, but the idea that every musician without some big industry deal is somehow more worthy is stupid. Just as stupid as the notion of commerce always ruining art. Think Ornette Coleman’s Naked Lunch soundtrack and Randy Newman’s work on Toy Story, which is pretty groovy regardless of who paid him or how much. Not oblivious to the power of money in linking faith and action, Zanes himself reminds us of the importance of “the collection”.

In conversation I would probably agree with Dan Zanes on a range of issues, not least ending discrimination and treating immigrants well. But again, listening to music is different and the messages on this disc run the risk of rendering the music uninteresting and even objectionable by the very process of joining together in song. Top of the list of tracks on this record that I could bear to hear again are “Himno Guadalupano” and “Granito de Mustaza”. This is because English is just about my only language and I can enjoy the music without having to get the message stuck in my throat. But listening to other songs had aspects of Milan Kundera’s work coming to mind, particularly the scenes where Paul Elourd and his fellow believers float up into the air like angels in blissful agreement. Those angels keep the [Communist] faith of which Kundera was once a devotee. He describes them as heralds of “uncontested..meaning on earth” and tells that those who slip from the belief circle fall “into the void of a world resounding with the terrifying laughter of the angels that covers… every word with its din.” Even if we leave consensual discomfort to Groucho Marx, for humans to be inspired to achieve world peace, end poverty and create a veritable heaven on earth will take more than this soundtrack. For this is music to put on when people come around whose musical taste buds gave out around Dark Side of the Moon, who think Sheryl Crow is a new artist and Buena Vista Social Club was a bit too challenging. It’s tame, multicultural ice cream and a steady diet will make even a life-long liberal heartily sick. Or maybe not, perhaps this is music that will appeal to everyone from children to their grandparents, a winner in the quest to “teach your children well”.

No doubt this take on The Welcome Table will be in the minority, especially around Grammy time. In which case, forgive me and remember that, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5.3). Meanwhile, The Washington Post has pitifully declared that “the former lead singer of the Del Fuegos has charged to the rescue of beleaguered parents everywhere…”. Uh oh, I didn’t notice but America must be under threat from rhythms and ideas again. But wait, Nick Cave, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry and others have worked with Zanes. The genius guitarist Richard Thompson has also praised him (if you wish to take his view seriously after the dreadful, almost arrogant, A Century Of Popular Music rendered a wide array of sources all equally unlistenable). Dan Zanes’ thoughts in another form can be found at his Twitter page [http://twitter.com/danzanes], where his human frailty comes through in an endearing way: “Determined not to get kicked out of the food co-op (for the 3rd time). Made up a shift stocking meat section. Played rumminkub to celebrate.” Maybe I’ll end up digging Zanes, for perceptions can change and even as I write this, miraculously, the most recent entry at his Twitter says: “Carol Channing said I reminded her of Louis Armstrong. She later changed her mind and said Barry Manilow.”

RATING 5 / 10