It may have been Melissa Collins’s idea to get tickets to Ben Lee in concert but it’s her daughter, preschool-aged Joyce, who is the most excited to be here.
“She’s been listening to nothing else for three weeks,” Collins says in the line outside The Great Club, a cozy live music venue in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville. “She woke up this morning and was like, ‘no more sleeps until Ben Lee!’”
The pair are here bright and early on a Sunday morning for Small Fry Rock, a children’s concert with a difference. It’s Ben Lee on the bill today, but previous editions in the series have been headlined by the likes of Josh Pyke, Tim Rogers and Regurgitator’s Ben Ely. Small Fry Rock’s next show, happening at the end of the month in Brisbane, will see Adalita from Magic Dirt and Phil Jamieson of Grinspoon fame perform.
While children’s concerts are nothing new, staffing them with acts that adults can actually enjoy is a more novel idea. So, is getting to see Ben Lee play a more appealing prospect for the Gen X or millennial mother, than, say, The Wiggles?
“Oh god, yes,” Collins answers without missing a beat.
Promoter Kristie Jane Tainton had the idea for Small Fry Rock when her own daughter, Edie, was one year old. Looking for child-friendly entertainment, she began researching gig options. There were festivals that catered to families, but those involved a multi-day commitment. There have been a few day concerts, or baby raves, here and there but they were infrequent. She could find stock-standard children’s shows, but Tainton didn’t particularly want to spend her weekends watching Hot Potato performed live.
“I wanted to go to different shows with Edie and realized there was a gap in the market,” she says. “I’m in that age group where we grew up in the 90s or early noughties and now have young families, so I know that we can’t get out to see as much live music as we would like. This is hitting that sweet spot.”
In Marrickville in the morning, the concert is playing to both its target markets. The bar serves plastic cups of apple juice for little ones and schooners of Young Henrys for mum and dad. A canteen sells hot chips and chicken nuggets, a dish that could appeal equally to a hungry child or the parent battling a light hangover. The show runs for just over an hour all up, a runtime clipped to suit young attention spans, and the reduced sound levels are also tailored to teeny tiny ears.
Entering the venue feels like stepping into a funhouse. Colouring-in equipment and a seemingly endless supply of balloons are scattered around the room to stop tantrums before they begin. One girl provides pre-show entertainment by bashing the keys of a piano in the corner of the room. Some parents sit and enjoy the relative calm of an infant on their lap; others try to walk to the bathroom while battling a toddler that has wrapped himself stubbornly around their leg.
Among the audience is Esti Zilber, a mother of three and creative producer at national music industry body Sounds Australia.
“I think it’s a wonderful concept,” she says. “It means parents can share the music they enjoy with kids, and it also keeps these artists on stages” – something that doesn’t always have to be the way we imagine it, and certainly not the way we experienced it in our early 20s .”
But the show also serves practical purposes. “To be honest it’s a rainy Sunday, I’ve got something to do with my kids and there’s a bar here if I want it,” Zilber says.
Many of the adults in the crowd here are Lee fans from way back who’ve grown up, started families and are now looking to inculcate the next generation with their musical tastes.
One is mum Katie Camarena, who has been playing her son Rafael tracks like Gamble Everything For Love and Running With Scissors in tactical preparation for today. (But not every track: “I haven’t played Cigarettes Will Kill You yet because I don’t want to have to do the explanation yet,” she says.)
Tainton says she has never told an artist what to play or what not to play – but that “they usually make the right choices”.
For Lee, that means playing his usual repertoire, though with a degree of misdirection for the children and a knowing wink to the adults. Midway through the set he introduces a new single called Parents Get High. The lyrics see Lee reminisce about parties his folks would have when he was growing up – full of whiskey, cigarette smoke and his dad passed out on the living room floor.
“Kids, you know when you see your parents climb ladders and they say you’re not allowed to come up here?” he tells the crowd. “This song is about that.” When he does play his Triple J-conquering hit Cigarettes Will Kill You, it comes with a message. “There’s a moral to this song and the moral is that if you work very hard and follow your passions, you might land at number two in the Hottest 100. Number two is the dream. Number one is too stressful – keep your dreams modest and attainable.”
Lee works through tracks like Into The Dark, We’re All In This Together and Catch My Disease, standing stoically behind the mic while children scream from the back of the room, climb on stage to dance around him, or just walk up and stand and gape at the funny man playing songs. (“I have not had this many stage divers since the Manly Youth Center in 1992,” he jokes at one point.)
By 1.30pm, the show is done and parents begin to peel exhausted toddlers in superman suits off the floor, heading home for naps and afternoon teas and Bluey reruns. It’s hard not to feel heart warmed – if a little like you’ve just emerged from the mosh pit of a particularly intense festival set.
“I have a lot of people messaging on social media saying, I don’t have kids, but can I come along? And yeah, absolutely everyone is welcome,” Tainton tells me. “We do warn them, though, that it is a bit chaotic. But it’s beautiful chaos.”