Warren Zanes, Dan Zanes and Woody Giessmann. (Photo by Wayne Viens)
The family ties within the Del Fuegos were as fractious and rollicking as the band's roots rock. They still are -- brothers Dan and Warren Zanes, whose infighting contributed to the Boston band's breakup by the end of the '80s, are grinning and bearing each other long enough for a reunion tour that begins this week.
But while Dan has made a new name for himself as a purveyor of "family music," fans can credit the reunion of the Del Fuegos to yet another Zanes: Dan and Warren's mom.
"Our drummer [Woody Giessmann] had done a favor for a family friend of mine, helped someone get into treatment," Dan Zanes tells the Sun-Times. "My mother said, 'Oh, Woody was so good and so helpful, and you know, he just wants one thing: He wants the Del Fuegos to get back together and do a show for his drug treatment organization [Right Turn]. I said, 'No, I can't do that.'
"But then I thought about it. My mother has never asked me to do anything. So I called the guys. Everybody was up for it."
-- 9 p.m. Feb. 25
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Sold out
-- 8 p.m. Feb. 26
• S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Ave. in Evanston
• Tickets: $22-40, (847) 492-8860, evanstonspace.com
That was just for a couple of shows, mind you. Last June in Boston, the original Del Fuegos -- both Zanes, Giessmann and bassist Tom Lloyd, once acclaimed for their rolling working-class rock on albums from '84 to '87, adored by Tom Petty and celebrated in a Miller beer commercial -- reunited on stage for the first time in more than 20 years. "I had more fun than I think I ever had with these guys," Dan says. In a separate interview, Warren says, "It was little more locked-in than I remembered it."
One good turn deserves a tour, so 11 cities were booked, including two shows this weekend in Chicago.
Let's hope they don't break up again before they make it here.
"We did almost kill each other at sound check for the first show," Dan says of the continuing friction between himself and his brother, "but we got through it pretty fast. We have tools to work with when things get difficult, things we didn't have back then." But then he laughs. "Living on a bus for 12 days -- that could be a challenge."
'I Should Be the One'
Warren explains the source of the animosity: "I say pretty openly that I didn't get my chance to be a writer in the band. I can understand why that might have happened, but we never for a minute tried any of my things. It wasn't that we tried them and they didn't work -- it was never tried. I think something different would have happened because I have a little more pop sensibility. Look at a band like Big Star. Rock and pop can work well if you allow a hybrid to emerge. But it was Dan's band. Big Star didn't start as one person's band. This was. We were the guys who played Dan's music with Dan."
Warren, along with Giessmann, bailed from the Del Fuegos after the third album, 1987's "Stand Up," and Dan trundled on with some new players for a fourth and final record. ("It seemed like a good idea at the time," says Dan now.)
After that, each member went in wildly different directions. "The most impressive thing about it all is that everyone went on to have such interesting lives," Dan says.
Giessmann ended up founding Right Turn, assisting artists in recovery from drug addiction and other mental health issues. Lloyd went back to school, earning a Ph.D. in environmental engineering, and also works with homeless youth. Warren Zanes also returned to the academy, taking his doctorate in visual and cultural arts; he became vice president of education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and began recording his own solo albums. He's now a teacher and the executive director of Little Steven Van Zandt's Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. Dan Zanes started his own rock solo career, then transformed into a wild-haired, Disney Channel-blessed children's music star.
Despite the friction, does Warren listen to Dan's family albums with his own children?
"Yeah, we do," Warren says. "At the right age, having Dan's band as your brother -- it's like John Lennon's your brother, to the kids. We love the music, too. He's consistently doing interesting stuff."
That doesn't mean he hasn't cracked wise about it.
"I was talking to [friend and producer] Mitchell Froom, and I took a cheap shot at Dan based on my own insecurity," Warren recalls. "I was like, 'How can he do it, playing for kids?' Mitchell said, "Uh, Warren, have you taken a look at the moms?' It was the forest before the trees -- there was a room absolutely full of beautiful young mothers. I was like, uh, OK. It's as good as any rock and roll show I've ever been to as far as checking out the women."
Warren's two sons, ages 7 and 9, have given him a new perspective on the rock band experience.
"It's like a circus to them, watching the whole thing," Warren says. "To be witnessed by your kids doing something you associate with your own youth is pretty strange and wonderful. They look at me a little bit differently, and I look at them a little bit differently. I see them processing the whole thing: 'We didn't realize this about him.' My oldest [Lucian] wore his Del Fuegos T-shirt to school, and the vice principal called him over. He's kind of a shy guy, and he thought he was in trouble. This guy with white hair goes, 'Where'd you get that shirt!' Lucian still thought something was wrong. The vice principal goes, 'I love that band!' I don't know if that helped or hurt my case."
'Don't Run Wild'
Age, however, is very much on the Del Fuegos' minds as they relearn and replay their old hits. The band's songs were hard-driving, high-energy swagger rock. They're girl watching in the stomping "Hand in Hand," and in the appropriately fidgety "Nervous and Shakey" Dan sings, "I know I got around,"
"It would be helpful to be 21 to have a full emotional connection to them again," Dan says. "There's something about those youthful emotions, they're not particularly complex. After getting inside them, it started coming back. I can take myself pretty seriously, and these are not the songs to be singing if you're taking yourself seriously."
"There's a little bit of the aging process going on," Warren says, "but I think we might be in the wine-and-cheese category. It seems to have gotten better with time."
Warren continues: "We've all done a lot of playing since the band. Not only have I gotten to play with really good musicians in my solo work, at the Hall of Fame and working with Little Steven just talking about the groove with people like [Little Richard drummer] Earl Palmer or [James Brown drummer] Clyde Stubblefield or Robbie Robertson or Nile Rodgers -- I think I became a better player just by talking about this stuff so much. I remember Mitchell talking about the groove as this total abstraction, like a hippie thing, but talking about a fundamental thing that makes rock and roll work. The groove, locking it in. You come back and it's still locked in. That's exciting."
"Once we get loosened up, it's great fun -- the primal energy of it," Dan says. "You know, rock and roll is not big-brain music, but it's great body music. ... We've been sounding better than ever, which is weird. We shouldn't be, because we're older and this is youth music."
When the tour wraps and the dust resettles, Dan returns to his family gigs. He says he's even developing a TV show around the music.
But there might be some new Del Fuegos recordings at the end of the road. Both brothers acknowledge that they've been working on new songs -- and writing them together for the first time.
"We never really did much writing together," Dan says. "That's a big part of why he left the group. Now we have an opportunity to try and do things differently. He's a great writer, and why wouldn't I want to?"
"Dan's finally coming to terms that I'm the smarter brother," Warren says, chuckling. "So there may be peace in our time yet."