The waning afternoon sun was still baking the concrete outside the Universal Amphitheatre on Sunday, but inside, several hundred pint-sized “Fred Heads” rocked to the cool beat of one of the luminaries in children’s music, Fred Penner, Canadian singer, guitarist and star of “Fred Penner’s Place,” a weekday staple on cable TV’s Nickelodeon.
In his late 40s, Penner, whose neatly bearded face is punctuated by mobile dark eyebrows, is well into his second decade as a children’s artist, but Sunday’s performance, coming in the middle of a multi-stop U.S. tour, showed that nothing is stale or forced in his music or in his connection with the audience.
From the time his large red tennis shoes hit the stage and throughout his 45-minute set, Penner was in control, involving the audience in musical activities and sing-alongs, tickling funny bones and lending his smooth, full vocals to an eclectic mix of songs, including several swing-era favorites from his “Happy Feet” album: “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along,” a supercharged version of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” and an irresistibly toe-tapping rendition of the album’s title song.
Penner’s laid-back, four-member Cat’s Meow Band contributed impressive instrumental support, seamless harmonies and good-natured comedy backup.
For all his parent-pleasing musical sophistication and assurance, however, Penner’s greatest gift is his ability to connect with the audience. He sprinkles his set with casual anecdotes about his own children--ages 2 to 12--and he makes his young fans part of every song.
It was a class act offered without a sign that the low turnout was a disappointment. The hot, blue-skied day may have been responsible for attendance being down by half from last year; whatever the reason, only 920 of the venue’s 6,200 seats were occupied.
Opening for Penner was fellow Canadian Norman Foote, 37, a Walt Disney Records artist. Foote’s quirky songs, strong vocals and comedy could easily provide a satisfying main course; as it was, his short set, backed by a talented band, was a spicy, crowd-pleasing appetizer.
Foote, whose penchant for comic irony is evident in witty, original songs such as “His Majesty the Baby” and “The Man Who Ran Away With the Moon,” also earned parental appreciation for his wicked renditions of “Old MacDonald” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as sung by Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson and the Queen of England.
Mixing songs with his signature offbeat puppetry, Foote earned more laughs with a comic routine involving one intrepid little audience volunteer and a large, goofy talking head.
Two improvements over last year’s Penner concert at the Amphitheatre: It was a trim, intermissionless 90-odd minutes long and the decibel level was reasonable--loud, but not ear-splitting.