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.
Let me tell you how Keno got better so quickly," Mark Babani begins. One day there was a real frustrating practice and I looked at Keno and said, `Keno, with all the time and resources that you have at your disposal, you should be way better than me already and you're not.' Not more than a couple of weeks went by and he was."
Keno has also begun listening to other guitarists. Although he's learned solos from records by Albert King, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keno is still a 13-year-old boy. And that means the twin towers of teenage fandomÏGuns n' Roses and Metallica.
That also means Keno's list of goals reads like an encyclopedia of teenage decadence: Lots of guitars, a big house and a boat."
As the band's main attraction, Keno is on the verge of a musical phenomenon known as the lead-singer thang." But so far, he's playing down his role as a potential sex symbol. Like his guitar playing, his thinking shows a wisdom beyond his years.
Right now I want to do this the rest of my life, if possible," he says of music. I also love art. I make art. It's one of my obsessions, along with music."
Although it looks like the result of careful planning, Mark Babani didn't set out to turn his family into a band. The Bluebirds grew slowly.
Mark was helping me by keeping Keno busy," Chris Babani, the band's wife and mom, remembers. The idea was that Keno would play rhythm for Mark while he dabbled in guitar. In his typical style, Mark just took off with this thing."
It wasn't long before Christian was old enough to play bass and the band was off and running.
The addition of all the kids came as soon as they were able to comprehend enough to be there," says Mark Babani, flicking a cigarette butt.
Early on, the Bluebirds were the opposite of most adult bands-youth was their only problem.
At first I was waiting for Keno," Mark says. ÔThen Keno and I were waiting for Christian. The three of us were waiting for Henkel and then for Coda and now for Willie."
When they started out, the band played music from their dad's childhood-Santana, Clapton, the Rolling Stones. But last year, about the time all the sons were in the band, the group was introduced to the blues by Harvey Moltz, owner of Rainbow Guitars in Tucson.
It seemed a good fit. Keno began listening to blues guitarists and by the time of last July's blues contest at Chuy's in Tempe, the Bluebirds could play with enough feeling to take second place. Since then the Bluebirds have begun to write their own music, which has a funky rock edge similar to vintage Little Feat. The band impressed Chuy's entertainment manager Hall Williams, who has booked the band on a regular basis ever since.
²The only problem with these budding musical stars is that they're still kids. As anyone who has been near it knows, the music business is fraught with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Although the life can look attractive from a distance, it can be devastating up close. Mark and Chris are well aware of the temptations their children will face.
We are trying to be careful about their school and their influences," Mark says. We have been talking to Danny [Zelisko] about getting someone to watch the kids at concerts. I mean, at the last concert we all went our separate ways and one guy is trying to give one kid rolling papers and one is trying to buy Keno a beer."
That guy was bouldered, by the way," Keno adds, using the Nineties word for drunk." There has been talk of setting up trust funds for each child if the band takes off. That's music to the ears of Chris Babani, who is surprisingly calm and supportive for the mother of four musicians.
I think it's really great that their dad is involved with them like this," Chris says. It's better than putting 50 miles a week on the car going to Little League and having other kids' dads involved with my kids as much as their own dad is. It's a father teaching his sons what he loves and can do."
The band's success, however, has not been guaranteed. Even fans wonder what the band will sound like on disc. Great live acts like the Bluebirds often have trouble capturing their energy on tape. And listeners won't be able to see the kids playing-a sight that gives their live show its kick. After listening to the group's demo tape, Bruce Iglauer, the founder and president of this country's biggest blues-only label, Alligator Records, said he just couldn't see a 13-year-old kid singing the blues.
The group's sudden success has also ruffled some feathers among musicians. After the Bluebirds took second in the Phoenix Blues Society contest, more than one person groused about a bunch of kids beating out bands that had been paying dues for years. Darker still were suggestions that Mark Babani was using his family to fulfill his own dreams of being a rock star.
The bad feelings flared into the open when a local blues photographer wrote a negative article in the Tucson Blues Society newsletter challenging Mark to leave the band, charging he'd listened to one too many Cream albums." His Sixties musical sensibilities, in other words, were holding his boys back.
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Another comment Mark heard was, No one wants to hear an overweight 40-year-old playing bad blues." Mark Babani admits that part of the original motivation for the band was his desire to be onstage. What I was working on originally was to try to make some dreams that I guess I've had and haven't verbalized to myself happen," he says. But what my dream is now, now that this has all happened, is to work with my children for the rest of my days. That is the thing that I want most of all.
The day I can't contribute to what the band is saying from the stage is the day I should leave. And if it comes, that will be a sorry day for me, 'cause I'm a ham like the rest of 'em, and I love being up there sharing it and doing it.
In the beginning, the kids were so young and musically immature that they were along for the ride. Now the whole thing has flip-flopped. Now they're the stars and I'm the one along for the ride. And it's way cool."
GRILLS IN THE MIDST... v4-15-92