Sunday, November 20, 2016

everybody's a good dog

I knew Shaun Fleming before I actually knew Shaun Fleming.

Jim and Tim (or is it Tim and Jim?)
When my son was younger, we loved watching cartoons together. I remember, three days before his fourth birthday, we planted ourselves in front of the television to watch the first glimpses of what would blossom into the phenomenon called "Nicktoons" on the hip kid-oriented Nickelodeon Network. My long-time love of animated entertainment was rubbing off on my boy and I couldn't have been happier. I introduced him to some of my childhood favorites, like Underdog and Hoppity Hooper. Together, we watched some of the newer offerings, like Doug, Rugrats and, much to my wife's chagrin, Ren and Stimpy. Nick's cross-cable rivals, The Disney Channel, wanted in on this animation thing. Sure, they are the undeniable leaders in the animation field, but breaking into the weekly cartoon thing was new territory. They tested the waters with The Proud Family, the first foray into animation produced specifically for The Disney Channel. They followed that with the action-adventure series Kim Possible. My son and I watched Kim Possible, with its cool, angular styles and pun-infused character names (Ron Stoppable, Will Du and of course, the title heroine herself). Among the many characters introduced during its four-season run were Kim's younger twin brothers, Jim and Tim Possible. The pair, while typical annoying siblings, were brilliant and often helpful in their sister's attempts to overcome evil Dr. Drakken, her nemesis bent on world domination. Jim and Tim were voiced, for most of the series's run, by teenage Shaun Fleming. Shaun had previously given voice to young "Tarzan" in the Disney series based on the full-length animated feature, Goofy's son "Max" in the Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas featurette and "Leonard," the owner of an unusual dog in the Disney/Gary Baseman cartoon Teacher's Pet.

Shaun plants one on E.
My son and I also loved to listen to music together. I would play my old favorites for him and, as the years went on, he would expose me to some of the music that he had discovered. (Coincidentally, he stumbled across Queen, my favorite band in my high school days, without any prompting from me.) At a rapid pace, he immersed himself into all things music, seeking out new and unusual bands, and giving close attention to the most obscure of genres. Eventually, he would take his love for music to career level, landing a dream job as a DJ on a local Philadelphia radio station. Through his connections, in 2014, he met a band called Diane Coffee who had come to the station to promote their new album release Everybody's A Good Dog. E., my son, recognized the exuberant lead singer as the drummer for the indie rock band Foxygen. His name was Shaun Fleming. Yep, that Shaun Fleming.  E. sent me the Diane Coffee album and — without sounding too cliche — I was blown away. I had grown up listening to — and loving — a 70s music genre known as "glam rock." This was the collective label applied to a wide range of artists like T. Rex and, more famously, David Bowie. Diane Coffee was an updated homage to all things glam. Plus, peppered throughout the album's tracks were soulful grooves, torchy vocals and funky horns  — all coming together to form a totally unique, yet totally familiar, sound.

It wasn't until almost a year later that I was able to witness Diane Coffee live and in-person. In the tiny Kung Fu Necktie, a club located under the elevated subway in Philadelphia's revitalized Fishtown neighborhood, Shaun and his band Diane Coffee took the compact stage and gave the crowd a show that was jarring, electrifying and totally captivating. Shaun, his face streaked with glittery, 70s style rock & roll makeup, mugged for the crowd and delivered a multi-faceted performance in a multitude of styles and voices. He poured his soul into his every movement and exuded a joy that was palpable. It is a barometer of a show's success when you can see how much fun the band is having on stage. And Diane Coffee was having a whole lot of fun.

When the set was over, a very sweaty Shaun marched right over to my son and gave him a hug. My boy introduced me to Shaun. As he extended a hand, I gushed like a teenager, telling him what a big fan I was of the new album. He smiled. Then, surprisingly, a look of concern took over his face and he asked me, "Were we okay?" and he gestured towards the stage. "Oh my gosh!," I exclaimed, "You were incredible! How could you doubt your performance?" I was absolutely taken by his earnest and his self-doubt, considering what I had just witnessed. He thanked us for coming and then I got a hug, too.

In the weeks following that show, Shaun and I exchanged pleasantries via Twitter until I got to see the band again when they played the WXPN summer music festival. This time, in the festival atmosphere, he played to an audience unfamiliar with his band. Seeing the name "Diane Coffee," they may have been expecting a small girl in a peasant skirt with braided hair and and an oversize acoustic guitar. Instead they got the second coming of The Sweet (of "Ballroom Blitz" and "Fox on the Run" fame) in all their glam-rock glory. At one o'clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Shaun and his bandmates captivated the crowd and, as they say, blew them away. The set, which Shaun and his mates started in faux navy uniforms, quickly morphed, after a surprise costume change, into a full-on spectacle. Once again, after his set, Shaun was gracious and appreciative and just a regular guy.

E. and I got to see Diane Coffee just last week, as their cross-country tour brought them to Philadelphia for a weeknight show. Once again, the place was packed with anxious fans. Just before the band took the stage, my son snaked his way through the dense crowd to say "Hello" to Shaun, who he spotted standing at the side of the stage. When Shaun saw E., he threw his arms around him in, what we have come to know as his standard, warm greeting. Over the ambient crowd noise, I saw E. mouth "There's my Dad" to Shaun and point in my direction. A broad smile reached across Shaun's face and he waved wildly at me. We saw the first five or so songs of Diane Coffee's set (which were terrific), but, due to unforeseen circumstances, were unable to stay until the show's completion. The next day, I saw a tweet from Shaun, thanking his fan base for a wonderful, if lengthy, tour. I replied to Shaun and this was our exchange:

Not yet familiar with Shaun Fleming and Diane Coffee? Well, I can tell you this... he's a really nice guy. 

And a good dog.

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