The Rainbow Connections 

The Dead Hensons trigger mushroom clouds of joyous childhood nostalgia.

It's genuinely shocking, watching an unsuspecting Dead Hensons audience react when Scarold P. Victim (nice stage name, dude) steps up with a banjo and starts singing "Ladybug Picnic." Nothing beats watching this buried memory explode in little hipsters' heads like a neurological mushroom cloud.

You know it. You just don't know you know it. One two three, four five six, seven eight nine, ten eleven twelve, ladybugs came, to the ladybug picnic.

Suddenly a crowd of boozing twentysomething malcontents all shrink instantly back to their two-year-old selves, crawling out of their now-comically oversized thrift-store clothing to get a better look at the TV, because Sesame Street is on.

Well, maybe not, but you do hear a lot of gasping, "Ohmigod I remember that"-type stuff. "That's kinda what it's about," DH Erica Johnson explains. "That feeling of "Oh god.' The sensation of being young, when you can actually remember what it felt like to be a kid again."

The Dead Hensons -- a year-old, seven-headed Bay Area outfit -- devote themselves entirely to the musical endeavors of Jim Henson's puppet-crazy empire. Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, etc. Even after rooting out the undesirable material -- The Dark Crystal is a bit esoteric, and Fraggle Rock is mostly crap with weird Christian hippie overtones that, the band fears, occasionally cross over into outright socialism -- you'd be surprised how much world-class material you've got to work with: "Subway," "Can You Picture That?," "Movin' Right Along," "I'm Between," and of course, the epic grandiosity of "Rainbow Connection," the "Free Bird" of the naptime-and-diapers set.

Your smug skepticism is no match for this nostalgic onslaught. "A lot of shows, the first four songs, people are just staring in confusion and disbelief," DH John Dumont notes. "Then you get to about the fifth song, and people start getting into it." "Then, by the end, the floor is shaking," Erica adds. This euphoria is partly nostalgic in nature, sure, but it also stems from the fact that, as Erica sincerely puts it, "We just wanna fuckin' party with other rad party bands."

Thus, the Hensons work well with like-minded, fun-loving "concept bands" such as the Schwarzenegger-obsessed ArnoCorps, and of course Cookie Mongoloid, a sleaze-rock band featuring nubile cookie-tossing vixens and a leather-daddy lead singer wearing a Cookie Monster head. But the band almost works better as a secret weapon, nestled in a four-act bill amidst dead-serious Hell, yeah, balls-out rock 'n' roll, dude fare. The weaponry might look slight: Keyboards, banjos, and boatloads of kid-tested, mother-approved merry melodies. But the Blast from the Past impact is devastating, and addicting.

Which is one of the reasons the Hensons never want for new material. "We also have amazing fans who feed us great history," says drummer Karianne Jones. "There's a whole weird little subculture of people who are obsessed with Muppets and songs and trivia. They're kinda our librarians, too, 'cause we go, "What's that song, you know, with the alligator and the rings and the crown?' And they'll figure it out."

Karianne and Erica rank among that obsessed subculture as well -- as the band lounges in Emeryville's Rudy's Can't Fail Cafe, they gleefully croon the "Rainbow Connection" reprise and reminisce about the early Sesame Street episodes, including the first few installments when Oscar the Grouch was orange. Though the show soldiers on even today (puppeteer mastermind Jim Henson himself died in 1990), it's a shadow of its former self: The band agrees that the Street jumped the shark when Kid 'N Play made a guest appearance.

Elmo? "I hate Elmo," Karianne declares. "Me, too," Erica concurs.

As for the tunes themselves, they're undoubtedly childlike, but far short of childish. Take "Pinball," another you-don't-know-you-know-it classic with the refrain One two three four five, six seven eight nine ten, eleven twelve, couched in a vicious '70s funk groove that, the band politely points out, is rather complicated, once you sit down and try to learn it. The Hensons' onstage penchant for trading instruments like baseball cards suggests a higher degree of musicianship than you might expect. But overall, these are just great songs, burying valuable educational info in candy-coated melodies kids will idly hum until they're, you know, 45.

Meanwhile, the band is plotting out-of-town ventures to Los Angeles and other fanciful locales, and recording an inaugural vinyl-only four-song release that, rumor has it, will be colored green. (Mechanical royalties for covering and releasing these songs apparently aren't all that expensive, though the Dead Hensons acknowledge that their band name eventually might not survive wider public scrutiny.) In the interim, they will mourn for today's children, stuck with a watered-down Sesame Street and a boatload of lame modern cartoons feebly attempting to replace it. (Pokémon? Please.) So consider the Dead Hensons a public service, reacquainting the jaded with the Joys of Childhood, and acquainting those currently experiencing childhood with the Joys of Reverent '70s Funk.

Take "Exit," perhaps the Hensons' marquee tune, another soulful number instructing kids on how to leave a building they no longer desire to inhabit. (Chorus: Exit! It's the way way out! Way out!) Ryan Beebe howls the tune in an inflamed, James Brown fashion, complete with rapturous Lord have mercy on my soul! ad-libs. The tune is passionate, exhilarating and, based on how much alcohol you happened to have consumed that evening, possibly quite informative.

Incidentally, "Exit" appears on the Sesame Street vinyl classic Signs!, also including such '70s psychedelic gems as "Wet Paint," "Please Keep Off the Grass," "Cross at the Road," and "One Way," a particular favorite of my five-year-old self. Thus I have just now purchased Signs! for $5 off the Internet, and I'm not gonna take any crap about it. You may not understand now, but once you've reheard "Ladybug Picnic," you will.


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