It’s the early afternoon on the final day of MusicfestNW 2010, and Portland pop-punk trio The Thermals are on stage inside Kennedy School bashing out the chords to a song called “Here’s Your Future” – an appropriate choice for an opening number, considering the front row is made up entirely of little kids. A pair of giant barn owls are dancing through the crowd as children alternately bop around at their feet, run up to hug them or retreat in terror. Earlier, those two owls flanked local hip-hop artist Fogatron during a beatbox demonstration, which ended with the performer encouraging the young audience to chant “space robot.”
Yep, the second season of the rock ’n’ roll variety show “You Who” has definitely begun.
Maybe hanging around a bunch of overstimulated rugrats isn’t the best way for an unattached twentysomething to nurse a Sunday hangover, but for parents looking to do something where they can actually have fun with their kids, it’s hard to imagine anything better. That was essentially the motivation for creators Seann McKeel and Chris Funk to start the show last year. In fact, to hear them tell it, “You Who” is as much about entertaining adults as it is children.
“It’s an environment where families who want to see music and want to see bands that are currently relevant to the scene but can’t make it out to clubs anymore can come and have beer and pizza,” said Funk, guitarist for indie folk-rockers The Decemberists. He and McKeel had long been interested in putting together an event that would appeal to both parents and children, but the idea didn’t truly take shape until they had a daughter of their own four years ago. “After we had a kid,” McKeel said, “we started thinking about those things more and more, just because during the long, rainy Portland months, you’re definitely looking for a way to get out of your house with your kids.”
Drawing on their connections to the local art community, Funk and McKeel kicked off “You Who” in fall 2009. In addition to booking some of the city’s more popular acts – Blitzen Trapper, the Builders and the Butchers, the Portland Cello Project, rappers Lifesavas and Funk’s own Decemberists among them – the couple has also collaborated with other Portland creative types, including comedian Aaron Ross, who acts as emcee. Although he’s mostly known around town as the star of Dante’s weekly “The Ed Forman Show,” in which he plays a foul-mouthed ’70s-style talk show host, for “You Who” he leaves the f-bombs at home to portray a genial son of a weatherman named Charles McAllister.
Puppetry, comedy, magic, storytelling, animation and, of course, giant barn owls (Funk designed the mascots, as well as “a big hesher carp named Carl,” McKeel said) all play a part in each show. But music is the driving force behind “You Who.” In the spirit of keeping things palatable to all parties, Funk and McKeel don’t ask bands to “kiddie-up” their sets for the show – so really, the only difference between catching a band at “You Who” or at a club is volume, since they do need to turn down in consideration of the youngsters’ sensitive ears. But some groups choose to tailor the performance slightly to the more youthful demographic: rock vets Quasi, for instance, covered the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” (and singer Sam Coomes wore a shaggy dog costume). “Most of the time they play songs from their catalog that they think kids would like,” McKeel said. “But they don’t learn traditional kids songs.”
Aesthetically, not much is changing this season – the stage decoration is different, and alt-acoustic group Sneakin’ Out is going to act as a house band – but with recent cuts to music and arts programs in schools, the significance of what “You Who” offers children is taking a new shape – even if its creators don’t necessarily see it that way at this point. Although proceeds from ticket sales go to p:ear, a creative mentoring program for homeless youth, for the most part McKeel and Funk feel like the initial mission of simply giving families entertainment everyone can enjoy equally is still mostly what the show provides.
But if it also gives kids exposure to art and music they might not otherwise receive, that’s not a bad byproduct, either.
“It seems to me it’s the parents augmenting their children’s lives,” McKeel said.
As for the bands, well, there’s nothing wrong with pulling in an audience while they’re young.
“Twenty years from now,” announced Thermals singer Hutch Harris at the end of their performance, “when somebody asks if you’ve heard of The Thermals, you can say, ‘Yeah, I used to like them … when I was 5.’”