Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Laugh-Out-Loud Funny

Today, for your consideration, I am presenting a review of Bill Harley's live CD and DVD (both entitled, "Yes To Running!"). I'd like to preface this edition by saying that I have a vivid memory of seeing Bill Harley play at Fales Elementary School in Westborough MA when I was in first grade. I won't say how long ago that was, but it has stuck with me. It was a treat introducing a new generation of kids to his music. It's also rare to have a group of kids laughing out loud while watching a performer, but needless to say, Bill Harley is a veteran. 

The kids were excited to be wearing their critics' hats again (I see the "broccoli factor" in effect). We watched the DVD as the CD has pretty much the same content minus the video (I like to have the CD for the car ride from Coconut Grove to Hollywood though). I have to say that DVD's are the way to go for kids' performers. I need to get on that bus! The kids were transfixed (at least for the first number anyway), and when we filled out our critique forms, I got responses that showed their careful consideration.

Cover Art:
I was interested to see how the kids would respond to a rather simple cover without illustration. As I expected, the reviews were mixed. Most kids really responded to Bill's grinning picture. "It is very good because it shows you what it's about right away," one 11 year old girl observed. Her classmate (also 11) found the cover art to be "Original and very nice." Bill Harley's funny faces were referenced by almost everyone, "I love the picture because your mouth [is] always open or with a smile on your face. You have a funny face when you try to make a funny face," responded one 9 year old girl. On the downside, one 10 year old boy wrote, "Could use some cartoons." A second grader had a constructive suggestion, "You should have a picture of kids laughing on the outside," she remarked after realizing you had to buy it and open it before you saw the picture.

If I were to sum up the responses to Bill Harley's lyrics in one word, it would be, "funny." If I were to sum them up in two words, they would be, "very funny." If I were to sum them up in four words they would be, "They are very funny." Some were able to use more words to describe what they heard, "It is so nice to know that someone understand[s] me. The songs connect to us, it's like hearing ourselves talk!" one 11 year old noted. I noticed big laughs during "The Great Sled Race," when Bill compares Mammoth Hill to Everest, and the sled race to the Superbowl (we had a nice conversation about exaggeration in story telling and tall tales).

The kids were immediately intrigued by the fact that it was just Bill and his guitar. "Acoustic guitar is very nice for any song," an 11 year old student commented. One eight year old boy reported "It sounds like country (I like country)." I also fielded questions about Bill's finger-picking style, "How does he do that?" a second grade boy asked after Harley completed a nice counterpoint lick. He also commented on Bill Harley's singing style, "Speak-talker. It is pure excellent!" His 9 year old classmate called Harley's performance "Inspiring."

Many kids noted Bill Harley's comic delivery and wrote "a comedian," or "a joker." One 10 year old girl thought of "Eddie Murphy." I had another few notes about Dr. Seuss, "It rhymes very well," an 11 year old girl said comparing Bill Harley to the Doc. Still other students mentioned their "embarrassing parents," while we were listening to "Grownups are Strange." "It makes me think of my Dad when we sings out the window," one girl admitted. "My Dad is so embarrassing when he dances. At least he does it in private!" a second grader remarked. My co-teacher Terri came into the room while we were watching and noted that, without seeing the screen, Bill Harley sounds a lot like Steve Martin. Minus the banjo and the, "excuse me!" she's on to something I think.

Age Range:
This time around I read "1-100" a lot. Some were more specific and the average here was around 5 and up. I received one very precise score. "7-54," wrote one 7 year old girl (I wonder who is 54 in her life. Was she thinking about AARP?).

The Mike Brady Wrap-Up:

I was really glad to get word from Bill's team after the top-ten list. He is one of  my big influences, and catching up with his latest material has been a treat (though I miss his mustache). I have been chomping at the bit to do this review. It's a concrete way for me to express why I think Bill Harley is  an example of everything I think is right with kids' music today.

He's got an uncanny ability to make both kids and adults laugh (watching the audience on the DVD is priceless). In the spirit of Roald Dahl and the Muppets, though, not everyone is laughing at the same time. I like that the parents respond to the little "over-the-head" comments and the kids giggle at anything silly, gross, outrageous or spoken with a wild accent. 

As a guitarist, this DVD made me feel compelled to practice. As a child Bill Harley seemed like a rock and roll god! As an adult I can see I wasn't too far off. I've always admired solo acoustic acts, purely because I could never be one. There is a certain skill to playing the acoustic guitar as a bass, harmony and melody instrument, all while singing and telling a story, that Bill Harley has clearly mastered. Musically, the song writing is simple and unadorned but the expression and playing are solid and his overall sound is full.

As much as Bill Harley is a story-teller and songwriter, he is equal parts comedian. His light-hearted and personable delivery is engaging. I know from personal experience that, being at his live show makes you feel like you're the only one in the room sometimes. This is the mark of a skilled performer. I would put the target audience for "Yes to Running!" at elementary school aged and up. The littler ones enjoyed "I Like to Sing," and "Echo." "The Ballad of Dirty Joe" had them captivated (the book's great too), but some of the longer stories were not on their wavelength. 

Nice work as always Bill Harley! I'll  be listening for you on NPR. If you're ever in the neighborhood we'll have to team up and keep 'em rolling in the aisles. That's it artists, my well has run dry. Send in your entries and be the next to be reviewed on Singing in the Bathtub.

Kid Quote of the Day: "Did you drink a lot of coffee today? You're acting like you're really hyper or something." ~ Sophia (age 6) to her teacher Nick. "No he's just always like this." ~ Gabriel (age 8). 


Anne Deysher said...

Another mother came up to me today to thank you for the thoughtful comments on what's appropriate for children. You've touched our parents - they just don't blog! Keep the faith - you are making a difference!
I hope you and Bill Harley can perform together. Wouldnt' that be amazing!?!?

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