THE BIRDS ARE THE WORD

THEIR LEAD SINGER IS ONLY 13, BUT THE BLUEBIRDS ARE NO NOVERLTY ACT

Art and Aaron Neville were standing in the tunnel leading to the Celebrity Theatre stage. Like most headliners who take on local bands to fill out the bill, the Nevilles rarely know, let alone watch, their openers. But this night, the brothers had been drawn out of their dressing room by improbable tales about the Bluebirds. Onstage four kids and their dad were ripping out loud, power-chord blues-rock. At the ripe age of 13, the oldest son was shredding a solo that successfully copped moves from every guitar god from B.B. King to Jimi Hendrix. Aaron Neville dipped his tattooed shoulder toward his brother and whispered, What is it they say? Never follow kids onstage." Call the Bluebirds a blues band, a power quintet or a freak of nature; they're talented, driven and able to rock. They're also the kind of act that makes people smile.

But in the past six months, those smiles have turned to jaw-dropping looks of incredulity as this intriguing novelty act-a dad and his four sons-has transformed itself into a real band. After years of dreams and discipline, these kids and their dad are attracting interest from all sides of the music business. Last July the band won second place in the Phoenix Blues Society band contest. That in turn piqued the interest of local promoter Dan Zelisko of Evening Star Productions. He used the group to open for Jerry Riopelle's New Year's Eve show and later the Nevilles' concert, and now acts as the band's manager. The band's performance at the Nevilles' show was videotaped and made into a three-song promotional video. That tape has opened doors. Jerry Riopelle and his guitarist Dave Plenn have agreed to produce the band's first record. The Bluebirds are currently being shopped among both major and indie labels with the help of Doc McGhee, manager of Motley Crue, Skid Row, Bon Jovi and the Scorpions. It's been five years since Mark Babani started the process that has turned his family into a band. Born in an Italian neighborhood in New York, Babani works as a chef at the Ventana Golf and Racquet Club.

But on this Saturday night in Tempe, Mark Babani is sitting on a chair playing rhythm guitar. Dressed in round shades, a vest, tee shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, the elder Babani sports a salt-and-pepper beard and shoulder-length hair. Once dad was the entire act. But these days Babani is making it a point to keep his presence muted, although he acts as the group's leader and chief spokesman. Throughout the set, he stays seated. Not until the last song does he get up from the chair and jam with his sons. Across the stage from his dad, bobbing his head and keeping up a steady beat, is bassist Christian Babani. At 11, Christian prefers metalesque stage attire: black boots, black pants, black leather vest.

Behind the band's guitars sits the group's dynamo and John Bonham-in-waiting, 8-year-old drummer Henkel Babani. When the band first began, Henkel was barely big enough to perch on the drummer's stool. These days he's become loud and aggressive, with a preference for big sticks and cymbals. He's also become an expert at the kind of fierce, head-tossing, teeth-gritting, come-and-get-it facial expressions that made Keith Moon a legend.

Due south of Henkel's snare is the group's newest member, 6-year-old keyboardist Coda. Called Cody by his family, Coda plays a full-size keyboard, comping along and contributing an occasional solo. Coda is the band's master of stage histrionics. Decked out in stretch pants and a double-breasted Navy jacket with nothing underneath, he swings his long bangs with the studied abandon of Chopin and rocks back and forth on the piano bench like the Killer himself.

Standing on a platform next to the soundboard along the club's front wall, mother Chris Babani runs a video camera. Two-year-old daughter Willie Rose, the band's future vocalist, naps outside with a baby sitter in the family car.

The biggest reason the band is now being taken seriously is at center stage.

There, 13-year-old Keno is working out one of his B.B. King-meets-Slash guitar solos that have become the center of the band's act. In two short years of dedicated practice, Keno has turned himself into the equal of many adults. Dressed on this night like a mall rat-loose shirt, jeans and black bootsÏhe looks like any 13-year-old kid. But he's a kid with soul. His eyes burn with an unmistakable fire. And when he steps out with his black-and-white 1990 Stratocaster, you can literally see him getting better.

Like most Southwestern cities, the east side of Tucson is a land ruled by dry wall and slump block. There, nestled in an upscale development, is the Babani home. Outside, everything appears normal. But when you pull up to the front gate, you're aware of music-loud music. The kind that uses electric guitars and drum kits. Inside the front door, what was once a living room is now a studio with speaker boxes stacked to the ceiling, microphone stands everywhere and cables of all kinds permanently duct-taped to the floor. In a back bedroom, 2-year-old Willie Rose naps fitfully through practice.

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