AT THE BEGINNING of September's show at the EMP's family concert series, I saw a grandmother gingerly working her way into Sky Church using a three-pronged rubber-tipped cane. By the end of the concert, she was doing the hokey pokey, while Father Goose rapped and the Dan Zanes band rocked.
That's what it's all about for Susie Tennant, the series' curator. "It's really all-ages music—young and old," Tennant says.
The family concert series seems to have jumped right out of Tennant's head into existence. Tennant, a 40-year-old veteran of the indie-rock scene, has a 2-year-old daughter, Ella. If you have had occasion to attend one of these great shows, you might have caught the two of them dancing together—they usually are among the first ones up. Susie is the tall one with bangs and the major chord smile, whose delight in the music is so infectious you'd have to be inoculated not to pick up on it.
One moment with Tennant and you know she doesn't want to raise Ella on Barney songs. After her daughter's birth, Tennant started rummaging around looking for music that would be "family appropriate" but also "songs for a lifetime," she says. "Songs I can sing with her when she's 30."
That's what led her to music by artists like Chris (the Presidents of the United States) and Tad (the Young Fresh Fellows), whose whacked-out, hilarious jam session opened the series in June. Other concerts have featured They Might Be Giants, who just released their first CD of family-oriented nerd rock, and Zanes—formerly of the Del Fuegos—who is laying down his own take on roots music for all ages.
Tennant has not only brought great musicians to the family concert series, she has paid attention to every detail in order to make the shows accessible for children. The stage is brought down to floor level so it is less intimidating to pint-sized people. You can sit on the floor. Librarians open the concert by reading children's stories that are displayed on an enormous drop-down screen. The volume of the music is loud enough to rock but not so intense that it hurts, and just to be safe, EMP staff pass out free earplugs to anyone who wants them. The concerts are at 1 p.m. on Sundays, a day and time that is well picked for families with young children. And most important, everybody gets balloons. Sky Church is transformed into a romper room of musical delights.
On Sunday, Oct. 20, John Doe, former frontman for X, will play his first family show at EMP. Doe, whose voice embodies all the loneliness and craggy beauty of the West's wide-open spaces, felt hesitant about doing the show, because he wasn't sure what to play. Tennant told him, "Do what you do when you are home with your kids, what you play for your family." Since Doe has three daughters, that closed the deal.
This weekend's show is the last one for 2002, but the series will start up again in March 2003. Tennant is talking with a lot of artists about playing next year including Kristin Hersh of the Throwing Muses, and The Young Fresh Fellows with Robyn Hitchcock.
Tennant believes she is helping nurture an emerging scene. "There's a groundswell across the country," she says. "It's like the indy scene in the '80s. People starting playing their music and a community built up around it."
While she rocks locally to support a national trend, Tennant also promotes a "lifelong relationship" with EMP for kids who love music.
My own view of EMP is that it's a wonderful gift to the all-ages scene in Seattle. It's a place where families can come together to hear great concerts, but it's also a place where your teenagers can go on their own and hear bands they love but you hate. Tennant says proudly, "Parents can say, 'It's Friday night, and you are at EMP, and it's safe.'" The combination of cutting-edge programming for older youth and a well-run, secure venue allows EMP to be safe enough for parents and hip enough for their kids.
Tennant will be at the heart of efforts to keep that up at EMP. As she puts it, "Music is community. It brings people together. Having adults and minors together with music is a good thing. Everyone should have a place to enjoy music."