Groover's paradise keeps propagating
A tiny blond toddler in Abercrombie khaki and plaid makes the rounds through the dining area at Jovita's, trailed by his mother as he stops to bop randomly to the music. He shows off his bright white teeth, grinning flirtatiously at guests, and claps excitedly along with the audience when the song ends.
Austin's Beaver Nelson takes his turn in the four-man song-swap onstage, alongside local singer-songwriters Matt the Electrician, Nathan Hamilton, and Michael Fracasso. The vibe is mellow, except for the one very unhappy kid howling into his mother's bosom. All in all, it's a bucolic Sunday evening, adults chattering over beer and nachos while children dance and waitresses dodge them.
Many a parent with a child or two in tow has come out to the first installment of this song-pull at Jovita's, a free show taking place the first Sunday of every month. It's early enough for grownups to find their groove and late enough for offspring to wear themselves out just in time for bed.
The brainchild of booking agent Laura Thomas, Pop Stars: Dads Who Rock is not only a unique opportunity for singing-songwriting dads to bring their kids to work, it's also a chance for fans to see a different side of their favorite local musicians.
"As I book primarily songwriters, I wanted a songwriters' circle I could put on the road at some point," explains Thomas. "One common thread between some of the roster surfaced: I just so happened to book a few artists with kids. After talking to a lot of people, it seemed like everyone was interested in seeing another aspect of the artists' lives being both family member/parent and performer.
"Eventually the idea surfaced for a family-friendly show where parents with kids could hear real music, and the performers would be okay with a kid or two running around," Thomas continues. "Nothing against the Wiggles, but it's nice to hear some music of substance now and then, especially for parents."
Matt "the Electrician" Sever agrees.
"There are people wanting to see music with their families," he nods. "We've had a lot of people that, you know, once you start having kids, you naturally meet other people with kids. You start talking to them, and the general consensus is that there should be more music out there from 5 to 7pm or 6 to 8pm or whatever.
"And Austin's really good about that. You've got Central Market North, Jovita's, Threadgill's things like that. There are a lot of options in town; it just takes a bit of looking."
Not only are shows like these a respite for parents trying to maintain some semblance of a nightlife after baby's made three (or four or five), it's also the perfect way for audiences and musicians alike to share their love of music with wee ones. More than one parent danced with their kids on Jovita's dance floor, oblivious to everything but their personal moment.
But Pop Stars is about more than just bonding opportunities for parents and their children. It's also about the relationships between musicians.
"We're all in the same boat right now," says Beaver Nelson. "When we're not onstage together, one of two things is happening: We're either playing the same time they're playing, or we're at home taking care of the kids.
"I don't go out and see a whole lot of music anymore, but I'm out a lot because I'm playing. My night out in a bar is working. But it's great to hear people that you like playing."
Somewhere between the imaginative (but cloying) song-tales of the Wiggles and Pop Stars lies Joe McDermott, Austin's most popular purveyor of children's music.
Man in the Moon
Both in his solo act and with his Smart Little Creatures, which includes his wife Louise, who also takes his calls, answers his e-mails, and sets up his interviews, McDermott spins tales of jungle beasties and space invaders that are blessedly agenda-free. Rather than moralizing or attempting to be educational, McDermott infuses his stories with the élan of extreme youth, something he attributes to his role as dad to two sons, aged 10 and 8.
"Your life is just not your own anymore," he offers. "When you're really young, you tend to describe your yearning and your experiences, but when you become a parent, you're very concerned with other people and how your actions affect others. Parenthood, to me, is like a door that you walk through. Once you walk through it, everything looks different."
Seeing life through dad-colored glasses changed everything, such as McDermott taking his career a lot more seriously. As seriously as one can take singing about bouncing kangaroos, that is. Writing about life for those who see things from 3 feet high is joyous work, but it's also a mighty feat for someone responsible for feeding a family based on that perspective. But it works.
Watching a Joe McDermott show is an exercise in almost painful nostalgia. As the hoard of children in front of the stage bounce-bounce-bounce like the aforementioned marsupial, one vaguely recalls an era of youth when jumping like that meant possibly bumping your head on the ceiling, an impossibly high tree branch, and sometimes, even the moon.
"I just think life is so darn mysterious," smiles McDermott. "I come from a family that thinks they have everything figured out, which made me rebel in that I don't think I have everything figured out. That's the way kids are, too. They don't moralize things, they just experience them, and there's an inherent joy in that. That's why I love to perform for kids.
"I was in rock bands before I had kids," he continues. "I was out all the time; I was rarely ever home. When I had kids and had to start waking up at 6:30 every morning, it got really hard. That's when I started settling down and focusing more on being a writer than a player. I started focusing a lot more on recording than playing live."
At that point, he was still performing grownup music.
"I still am," he's quick to clarify. "I've been working on an album for about 100 years. I'm going to finish it soon."
In other, more ancient civilizations, the women lived together and raised children without much input from the men. When daddy was off on the hunt, day-to-day life remained more or less the same. In the not too distant past in our own culture, "work" was someplace daddy (and then mommy) left the house for, often wearing something strange-looking and uncomfortable. For the child, work was "away," and so was the parent.
And the Women Who Support Them
Life as the child of a musician doesn't spell fancy dinners out five nights a week, nor does it necessarily mean that money for college is a given. What it does mean is that dad is home more often than your sandbox colleagues, who probably only know pops as that dude who comes home in time for dinner and may or may not do the tucking in and/or bathing.
"You've got a lot of free time to hang out with your kid," agrees Nathan Hamilton, whose daughter Lila is 3 years old. "I wouldn't trade that for anything. I get to spend so much time with her. If I were working a straight job, I'd be gone in the morning and come home at night in time to put her to bed. I'd much rather be struggling to pay the bills and have that time than not having to worry and just seeing her an hour a day."
Beaver Nelson, similar to Hamilton in his rough-hewn roots rock, is the father of 31é2-year-old Jack. He readily concurs with his musical colleague.
"Our kids are getting mommy and daddy most of the time, and like Nathan said, I wouldn't trade it. When we're on the road, I don't know how the wives do it. I really don't."
"I'd much rather have him be gone for three weeks at a time than gone every day," says Kathie Sever, wife of Matt the Electrician and mother of Ramona, 3, and Arlo, 2 months. "When your husband is gone for three weeks, your friends rally around you."
Sarah Bork Hamilton is on the same page.
"There's an acceptance among musicians' widows that this sucks, but let's make it better for each other. We meet up with friends at Little Stacy Pool then go out for pizza."
The two women have the natural rapport of close friends in similar domestic and professional situations. Both run their own businesses from home; Hamilton is a photographer, whose work provides a touching visual element to the Pop Stars package (www.sarahborkhamilton.com), and Sever designs a line of children's clothing called Ramonster (www.austinmama.com/ramonster.htm). Together, along with Jon Dee Graham's wife, Gretchen, the women form a close-knit support group of kindred souls who know what it's like to struggle in the service of a dream. Two dreams, actually.
"It's like, 'Whose financially unsuccessful business takes priority this week?'" Sever says wryly as she cradles Arlo. "We're both in full-on early business mode, investing lots of time, energy, and money into something we want to take off. It keeps me up at night."
"I have a block against that," says Hamilton. "I can't let myself think about it."
Both women and their husbands freely admit it's the women who carry the financial burden of the families, a job made increasingly complicated when they're thrust into round-the-clock child care when their husbands are on the road for weeks at a time.
"You just get into a groove with your kid," says Hamilton.
"It also gives you the opportunity to lay off yourself and just be with the kids," Sever adds.
While personal time is nearly impossible, being on duty 24-7 affords the women a break from worrying about money, their businesses, what have you. Like their husbands, the wives wouldn't trade their situations for anything.
"I wouldn't put up with it if I didn't believe in him and didn't think he deserves to be outrageously successful," Hamilton urges.
"We're not rich and we don't get to go out to eat very often, but we're together as a family, and that's so valuable," says Sever.
"Life should be gratifying," Hamilton continues. "It's about finding your essence and expressing that."
"Austin creates a unique environment for musicians with families," says Sever.
Hamilton nods enthusiastically in agreement. "In my hometown, we would be so starving!"
"And angry," quips Sever.
"And angry," nods Hamilton. "There's so much support here for having made this life choice."
The marriage of family and musical career is nothing new under the blazing Austin sun. This is, after all, Groover's Paradise, onetime home of the Armadillo World Headquarters and Soap Creek Saloon, where the Sexton and Sahm brothers dozed in metal chairs while their parents got up to music and mischief. As long as Austin's been a mecca for musicians, it's been a romper room for their children as well.
Coo de Tot
The benefits of such a phenomenon pay off for a nonmusician population in that throughout the city's history, music has been available to those whose wardrobes include spit-up-stained BabyBjörns. And let's not forget the erstwhile AquaFest, which even in its über-lame waning years, featured a children's stage alongside blue-collar rockers like the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Parents who want to shell out a few extra dollars in September can bring their kids to the Austin City Limits Music Festival, the kiddie tent of which has hosted the Jellydots, the Biscuit Brothers, McDermott, and activist-mommy Sara Hickman. Even SXSW 04 hopped aboard the family-friendly bandwagon, offering free shows at Auditorium Shores each night of the festival, putting the Jellydots and Joe McDermott on the same bill as Los Lonely Boys.
Events like these happen more than twice a year. Every Friday and Saturday around 6pm, Central Market North plays host to, among other acts, a rotating roster of world-beat groups that routinely get tiny butts shaking in front of the stage. Central Market booker Shawn Hopper says parents with children are a prime demographic for his venue.
"If I book a band and all you can see in front of the stage is little kids dancing, it pretty much guarantees that I'll book that band again," he says. "Kids love something with a good beat to it because they love to dance."
Add to that Threadgill's outdoor stage and weekly gospel brunch, also a staple at Stubb's, and families can knock out an afternoon/early evening of dinner and entertainment all blessedly free of televised wardrobe malfunctions and shrill commercials.
The galleries and SoCo fashion strip of South Congress are also getting in on the family action. The Pop Stars recently appeared at landscape design and gardening shop Big Red Sun's Hello Birdie fundraiser, as well as a Coo de Tot kiddie fashion show.
Even the Longbranch Inn, a smoky bar on the eastside, tried to participate, hosting a short-lived residence for the Pop Stars that failed for logistical reasons. It seems that not too many parents were going to haul their kids out to a smoky bar at 9pm on a Thursday evening. The thought was there, though.
For the most part, those who live in certain ZIP codes in this city benefit from the fact that Austin, despite its city status, still functions in large parts like a town. So many events take place in central locations, which brings the same faces to the same places time and again.
This inevitably contributes to a sense of community among like-minded folks who live within walking distance (or a short drive) from many of these locales. The same moms and dads who meet at Jo's for coffee can take their kids to Jovita's for some music and dinner and go home a happy family. Groover's Paradise is growing up.
Pop Stars: Dads Who Rock perform a Father's Day show at New Braunfels Museum of Art & Music, Sunday, June 20, 2-4pm. More information at www.nbmuseum.org.