This Seattle band plays with kids — and, soon, with the Dalai Lama.
At a Seattle auditorium, a standing-room-only crowd spills into the aisles, forcing security to clear a path for safety reasons. Taller fans hug the walls, allowing the shorter audience members to have a better view.
Suddenly, three dark-haired musicians appear. One straps on a purple bass and straddles the amp. At his first notes, a crush of fans — clad in everything from pink polka-dot dresses to Woodstock-esque bandannas and camo pants — storms the front of the stage. And as these 3- to 10-year-olds jump up and down, creating the ultimate moppet mosh pit, plenty of their parents are rockin’ out in the seats.
“This is his fifth Recess Monkey concert,” says the man next to me, whose 3-year-old son has already been led up front by Mom. Only a bit abashed, the 40-something father holds up his iPod, confessing, “Yes, it’s loaded with Recess Monkey songs.”
Such is the phenomenon and cross-generational pull of Seattle’s Recess Monkey: a band of three private-school teachers whose growing fame as purveyors of kiddie rock/pop has reached the ears of the Dalai Lama.
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Yes. That Dalai Lama.
The — dare we say evolution? — of Recess Monkey begins back in the 1970s, when in Jamestown, Ind., population 900, little Daron Henry sits atop the kitchen counter, enchanted by a recording of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” In another part of that state, Jack Forman’s chain-smoking cello teacher rewards his musical achievements with Pall Mall-tinged lemon cookies. And in the Amish Country of Pennsylvania, Drew Holloway cajoles his musician father (who has a great Beach Boys record collection) into making yet another unscheduled stop at Philadelphia’s famed Zapf Music Store.
Fast forward through high school and college (Purdue, University of Washington and James Madison University, respectively) to a fateful day in 2000 when Holloway interviews for a teaching position at Seattle’s University Child Development School (UCDS). Two of the faculty, Henry (who now teaches at The Giddens School) and Forman, recognize a talented kindred spirit and recommend he be hired.
In short order, the co-workers discover their shared love of the Beatles, Brian Wilson and power pop. Inspired by these rock legends (and by famed children’s poet-cum-musician Jack Prelutsky), Holloway, 30, begins writing and composing child-focused tunes that ricochet off the walls of Forman’s basement during their four-hour Sunday practice sessions. Fueled by enthusiasm and the homemade cookies of Forman’s girlfriend Ellen, the newly christened Recess Monkey releases its first CD, “Welcome to Monkeytown,” in 2005. It’s followed by “Aminal House” and a story-cycle CD, “Wonderstuff,” which enlisted the talents of 100 youngsters enrolled at a UCDS arts camp.
But it’s “I Went to the Zoo (with the Dalai Lama)” — a song title that came to the 40-year-old Henry in the shower — that has led to their recent acclaim and to their invitation to participate in the Seeds of Compassion event April 12 at Qwest Field, which will feature the Dalai Lama himself. The three still can’t quite believe the honor.
“But I guess it’s real,” says Forman, 31. “We’ve actually been promised 10 guest tickets and bottled water.”
Given the nature of the event, the band members wondered if they should offer up some of their slow-tempo tunes, such as “Warm Words.” “We thought about soft-pedaling,” Henry admits, before all three exclaim, nearly as one:
“But we decided to just go for it and rock out!”
Which, in Recess Monkey-talk, means many a “rock-star finish” (jumps in the air to close each tune), those Beatles- and Beach Boys-infused melodies and lyrics that evoke both joy (“Monkey Bars”) and empathy — in one case, for a terpsichorically challenged hen (“Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?”).
His Holiness might even be tempted to join in one of Forman’s Pied Piper-style auditorium treks. Can’t you see it? An orange-robed holy man and a pint-sized throng circumnavigating Qwest Field, arms moving through the air, voices ringing out to “Monkey Bars” in the joy that is Recess Monkey.
I’m movin’ forward, I stretch and sing
I’ve crossed a zillion times it’s still my favorite thing.
Megan Sheppard is a regular contributor to The Seattle Times. Reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.