You may not realize what you’ve been missing these last couple of pandemic years, but it’s likely Fred Penner.
The renowned children’s performer, and arguably Canada’s greatest creator of music for families with children, is back on the road, a familiar place for him over the past 50 years. He is returning to the Kootenay Children’s Festival in Cranbrook on May 7, and his multigenerational audience of fans couldn’t be happier.
“This is a solo trip,” Penner said of his show, in an interview with the Townsman. “Me on stage, me with my guitar. It’s going to be engaging. Even though it’s been a while since touring has happened, my essence is to bring music to the audience, to participate, to sing along, to field requests along the way perhaps. But it’s always an open, person-to-person experience. I love doing live performance, because it’s a whole new combination of people who’ve never been together before. Every performance is like that.”
Still, it’s been a while. Penner’s own pandemic shutdown started in early 2020, in the middle of his 40th anniversary “The Cat Came Back” tour (marking one of his signature songs and albums), and so he returned home to Vancouver Island.
“I’ve literally been on the road for 45 years — even more,” Penner said to the Townsman in an interview. “Since 1972, when I made the decision to attempt to become a professional entertainer. That’s all I did. I took some theatre classes in that time, but lots of touring.
“And so to suddenly be off the road, to not have to think about booking a flight or renting a car, or making sure my merchandise was up to snuff — all of that just dropped out of sight.
“I was able to focus more on my physical health and well-being. I turned 75 last November, so the age is upon me and all the things that come with that.”
However, the road life is back. Penner has played recent gigs in Powell River, Kelowna, Revelstoke … and he will be the featured headliner at the Kootenay Children’s Festival in Cranbrook, Saturday, May 7.
“It’s starting to pick up again, but the summer is still going to be pretty quiet, so I’m not full tilt back into it. But it’s starting to require my energy. But it’s strange. It certainly is strange.
“But I’m healthy in all respects, and excited to be getting back on the road and testing out the things that I’ve been doing all these years.”
After such a hiatus, artists and performers could be forgiven for returning to the stage with a certain trepidation. But be that as it may, by all accounts the demand for Fred Penner has never been greater. He was a key figure in what many consider the Golden Age of children’s entertainment — the 1980s and ‘90s. His TV show, “Fred Penner’s Place,” aired in Canada and the U.S. for years. He is a four-time Juno Award winner. His songs are familiar across generations of children’s and adults.
“It’s hard to tell,” he said, of the great anticipation audiences have for his returning to performing. “But I do feel a wave coming up. In the midst of the Covid world and the pandemic, people want to hold onto something that has a positive element to it in the midst of all this insanity and all the negativity that we’ve been dealing with. And my world for all these years has been that; has been about being positive and optimistic and encouraging to families and people to follow their dreams.”
Fred Penner’s music and performance is about the positive values that families deal with on a regular basis, he says.
“It’s bit like pulling teeth, but it does seem to be enduring. I think that that generation — the children of the Boomers — are starting to have their own kids, and they really want to go back to what they had. I think that’s a pretty common thing for people. You feel something when you’re growing up that has an effect on you, that gives you whatever energy you needed at that time. And as life goes on and you start to have your own kids, it’s ‘Oh, I want them to experience what I had.’ And that’s driving any resurgence, or people coming back to the concerts now.”
But even that’s starting to change, Penner says. “The new programming I don’t believe has the same level of integrity, warmth and humanity that we had, with Friendly Giant, Mr. Dress-Up, myself … When those shows started happening, it was very gentle, it was really engaging. The people watching the program felt that they were being included in this journey. And that has always been very important to me.
“When I was doing ‘Fred Penner’s Place,’ I was talking to one child when I look at the TV camera; I’m not talking to thousands, or however many were tuning in at that time. But it’s giving the energy of one-on-one communication.
“I think that’s part of the thing that people are holding on to.”
That generation of children’s entertainment — Raffi, and Sharon, Lois and Bram, Penner, etc al — played to massive audiences in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Penner recalls, for instance, one weekend in Windsor, Ontario, when he five sold-out shows in a 2,000 seat theatre.
“People were so hungry for that. And I think that hunger is still there, but the supply is getting limited somewhat.”
Back to the present: The Kootenay Children’s Festival is the largest event for children in southeast B.C., and one of the last remaining free festivals in the province. It takes place this year in Rotary Park, Saturday, May 7, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This will be Penner’s third appearance as headliner.
Penner is not just a legacy act, he is very much of the now. But his journey as an artist has indeed been epic.
“This whole trip has been a very humbling experience,” he said. “When I first got into this journey, it was very much inspired by my sister, who was born with Down syndrome when I was a teenager, and watching how the music affected her. So when I started creating music for families with children, it had that essence to it — that music is able to get inside a person and make a difference in their lives.
“I’ve always had a particularly fond connection with special needs of all ranges. And the support that has come back to me from the Down syndrome community, and families with autistic children — for whatever reason, they’ve felt that my music has been able to connect with them in a way that others’ have not. And I don’t completely understand how that is, and in a way it’s none of my business. I do what I do to the best of my ability.
“And after all this time, it’s still an interest, and I cannot be more grateful than that. It’s been an unbelievable journey and I’m going to carry it on as long as I can.”
Also appearing on stage at the Kootenay Children’s Festival are Bonnie Harvey and Karima Essa
• Presenter Bonnie Harvey is from the Aq’am community. She was awarded the 2020 BC Achievement Community Award for her work on behalf of the Ktunaxa Nation’s language and culture.
“Bonnie is committed to being a lifelong learner of her ancestors’ isolate sounds and the Ktunaxa way of being and knowing,” said Key City Theatre. “As a story teller, Bonnie has travelled all over ʔamakʔis Ktunaxa and beyond to share her knowledge and love through legends.”
• Karima Essa is a three-time Canadian National Dance champion and Vancouver’s very own Bollywood star.
“An incredibly charismatic and passionate performer, choreographer and instructor, she has used her one-of-a-kind Bollywood talent to entertain diverse audiences at festivals, theatres and in schools across Canada,” Key City Theatre said.
• The Ktunaxa Pow Wow Dancers and Drummers will also be performing.