Women and children first
Meghan Toohey and Dan Zanes
by Brett Milano
Two or three years ago, the gods of marketing decided that it was rock's "year
of the woman." The hype sounded silly then, and would sound sillier if we
revived it now. Nonetheless, the past year has been a good one in town for
female singer-songwriters -- if you're looking for inventive melodies and
emotional daring, they've been the best place to find them. The local list
would include Merrie Amsterburg, Jess Klein, Amy Correia, Melissa Ferrick,
Juliana Hatfield, Catie Curtis, Erin McKeown, and soon-to-be Bostonian Rose
Polenzani. Most of these singers released impressive albums this year; all are
perched somewhere between folk and rock. And they've done the double service of
putting some heart into the local rock scene while rescuing the folk circuit
from the novelty songs and James Taylor homages that have characterized it for
A late addition to the A-list is Meghan Toohey, whose Romantic Blunder
#4 confirms the buzz she's built up over the past year. She rocks harder
than most of the singers named above but like them writes grabbing, emotionally
brave songs. The title doesn't refer to the lyric content (she says it's a
sentimental nod to her first band, who had a song called "Romantic Blunder
#3"), but it fits. Most of the songs come from the downside of love, but there
isn't a lot of self-pity or bitterness: she comes off as a bruised, scrappy
survivor. She softens only on the finale, "Even the Rain," a song of outright
adoration (the chorus is "Even the rain would fall for you") that sports a
soaring chorus hook.
Things are happening fast for Toohey, who spent last week in the UK, where
she's been opening 3000-seater shows for the Saw Doctors. This month she
continues a Wednesday-night residency at the Lizard Lounge, after which she'll
be at Club Passim on January 11. These will likely be her last shows for a
while in that kind of small venue. February 10 will find her taking part in a
songwriters' festival at the Somerville Theatre. She's playing the UK shows
semi-acoustic, accompanied only by her bassist Dimitri Fane (late of Slide),
but she joins the Saw Doctors for an encore of the Pretenders' "Brass in
Pocket," which has apparently been bringing down the houses. "Last night in
Glasgow the floor was literally shaking," she reports on her cell phone from
Manchester. "It is a little scary, but I'm a ham when I get in front of a
microphone, so it's no problem being in front of all those people. It's an
inspirational thing to be around the Saw Doctors and see how human they are,
but when they get in front of the crowd they become superstars. We're having a
real Spinal Tap year, and we've even gotten lost backstage a couple of
It's telling that she brings up Spinal Tap, and that she's chosen a
Pretenders song (and, in recent local gig 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry") to
cover. Although Toohey came out of the local folk circuit, she now identifies
as a rocker. That's borne out by the full-band sound of Romantic Blunder
#4, on which she plays everything but drums; she also produced, and she
does the layered vocal harmonies. One obvious sonic role model is Jon Brion's
production work for Aimee Mann, with its mix of tape loops and twang. "I do
think Jon Brion is a genius. But I also come from the classic-rock school, with
Bonnie Raitt and the Pretenders, so I'm trying to mix those [approaches]
together without going too far over the top.
"I guess I was always known as a rocker within the folk world. I definitely did
my share of being a folk groupie when I was in high school. I was really into
the Story, so that's where some of the harmony comes from." Another influence
was her older brother Sean, a confirmed pop freak who plays in the Red
Telephone and guests on her album. "Our father is a music teacher and our
mother's an English teacher, so I'd always pick up things they brought home and
start playing `Smoke on the Water.' Then my brother got into pop music and I
thought he was the coolest guy in the world."
Toohey's UK tour has also helped break a songwriting slump that she's been
dealing with for a while. The songs on Romantic Blunder #4 are all a
year old or more -- but no, they didn't all come from the same relationship.
"No, it's been pretty varied, thank God. But hey, that makes it easier to write
When she returns to Boston this week, she'll likely have a pile of songs that
she didn't have at the outset. "I've been picking up a lot of conversations in
the pub, trying to connect with the landscape, things I wouldn't see at home.
There's a lot of time to think on tour, so the songs just start to fester. Now
it's reaching the point of nausea, where they pour out like crazy."
Back when he fronted the Del Fuegos, Dan Zanes played to packed clubs
and shared national stages with Los Lobos and Tom Petty. Now he's hitting
elementary schools with his acoustic guitar, playing morning shows for first-
and second-graders. Some musicians wouldn't consider that a very desirable
career move. But as far as Zanes is concerned, the kids are all right.
"I was just playing `Rock Island Line' for some kids at 10 a.m.," he notes over
coffee at Cambridge's 1369 Coffeehouse. "The whole experience feels like 1981
for me -- just loading up my van with pieces of my PA and an accordion. My gear
is the same, the clothes are maybe a little nicer. I've always tried to learn
as many cool cover songs as possible -- that's still happening. The audiences
are five- and six-year-olds, and for them it's a dance party, so the shows are
controlled chaos. And it's such a change from the rock world, where all you
think about is me, me, and more of me."
Zanes' disenchantment with pop life has been well documented. Although the Del
Fuegos were a well-liked band to the end, they succumbed to some of the
in-fighting that went with the territory. When the last line-up folded, six
years ago, Zanes kicked a long-time drinking problem, moved to suburban New
York, and made a confessional solo album (Cool Down Time) that got good
reviews but didn't sell. It wasn't until he started trying to find a hip, fun
children's record to play for his daughter, Anna, that he found his new
occupation, making those that kind of record himself.
His first effort, Rocket Ship Beach, was released this month on his own
Festival Five label. And it ranks with recent entries by Los Lobos (Papa's
Dream) and NRBQ (You're Nice People You Are) on the short list of
kids' albums that won't make adults cringe. The music has a friendly, folksy
tinge, with Zanes doing acoustic versions of long-time faves like "Erie Canal"
and "Over the Rainbow." The disc opens with a rockabilly version of "Polly
Wolly Doodle" (with Sheryl Crow on harmonies) that sounds just like the Fuegos,
with Zanes's voice as raspy and Tom Waits-ish as ever.
"I wanted to do something like [Jonathan Richman's] Rock'n'Roll with the
Modern Lovers -- that to me is a perfect children's record. I know that
kids like to rock, and they like to dance -- if I thought it all had to be
songs about brushing your teeth, I'd go back to pop music. I think music is
most powerful as a shared experience, so why can't there be kids' music that
grown-ups can like? In my neighborhood, people can't find any music they'd like
to play for their kids, so they just wind up putting on the Beatles and the
kids lose out."
It didn't hurt that Zanes had made some famous friends in his rock-and-roll
years. He met Sheryl Crow through Fuegos' producer Mitchell Froom -- it was
Zanes who introduced her to the converted warehouse that became Globe Studios,
where she made her last album, The Globe Sessions. Also guesting on the
current album are Suzanne Vega, former Boston songwriter Barbara Brousal, and
Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, who wrote a jolly, English-style kids' song.
"I can't picture him on the road with Bad Company working on that tune, but I
know he's had it in his head for a while."
Getting to run his own label (which is now getting distributed through Rounder)
is another plus from the rock days. "I'm using recycled paper and soy-based
inks, and there's nobody around to tell me I can't do that. I made five records
for other companies, and the question is, what do you hold in your hands at the
end of the day? I mean, Slash [the Fuegos' label] doesn't even send out any
statements. I figure that if I go down in flames, I'll still do it the way it
should be done, and the good news is, it's not that unrealistic."
Another Del Fuegos gig or two isn't out of the question, since the original
line-up played a benefit show (for a soup kitchen that Zanes's mother runs) at
the Middle East last year and may make that a semi-annual tradition. But that's
as close to his old life as Zanes plans to get. "This is not a temporary
vacation from pop music -- it's a total departure, and I'm not going back. I
feel I'm more useful in this world than I ever was in pop -- what I didn't like
there was the whole idea of a wall between yourself and the audience, and I was
as guilty as anybody of perpetuating that." Still, at least some of the old
habits die hard. "I was doing a show for the kids and dancing around, and a
friend of my wife said, `Dan is such a performer, he ought to be in a rock
band.' And she had to tell her that I already was."
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