Peter Shapiro’s Rock and Roll Playhouse is Ensuring Live Music’s Future

Music impresario Peter Shapiro is teaching kids to be concertgoers one unlikely show at a time.

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An illustration of Peter Shapiro
Kreg Franco for Fatherly

It is 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, still hang-over early in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Outside Brooklyn Bowl, a hipster-flypaper bowling alley and concert venue, a line has already formed as partiers wait to get inside. A bouncer with a shaved head and braided goatee peers menacingly into the middle distance. His gaze falls on a four-year-old girl wearing red Mary Janes flats and a princess dress. She picks her nose and, holding eye contact, sticks her finger into her mouth. Had she been a reveler from the night before, such insouciance might have earned her a getdafuckouttahere. But everything is different in the morning.

The bouncer’s face remains granite and as the father makes a pleading demand, “Madison! Don’t eat your boogers.”

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The crowd, a mixture of self-consciously young parents their unselfconsciously young kids, has gathered for the latest installment of Rock and Roll Playhouse, a series of concerts in rock-and-roll venues organized by the owner of Brooklyn Bowl, legendary concert promoter Pete “Shappy” Shapiro. Today’s show, one of the nearly 400 performed since the series was launched in 2013, will be given wholly over to the music of Dave Matthews Band, which most of the many, many dads I’m about to hang out with call DMB.

This is the first concert many of the dads in attendance have been to in a long time. Such is the heavy mantle of responsibility: the early wake-ups, the night-time comforts, the general softening and sapping of stamina inherent in middle age. And, honestly, such is the death of cool. As men like the DMB dads — and admittedly myself — sleepwalk through the early years of fatherhood, they tend to gravitate back to the sentimental favorites, whether that’s Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Phish, the Dead, or, well, DMB.

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When we wiggle on the way to work, kids object. “Dad, you dance like a dork,” they say. And, in the rear view, our glory days grow smaller. But objects are closer than they appear. Which is why the Dave Matthews Band cover show makes so much sense. It’s a nostalgic thing for men of a certain age and, let’s be real, a certain disposition (though a game of lacrosse did not spontaneously break out). The whole thing works — and it’s clear from the moment I walk into an appropriately darkened room with spinning lights and a bar that it does work — because it’s for both the kids and the adults. It’s a well-designed notion.

Peter Shapiro, the impresario behind Rock and Roll Playhouse, operates out of a memorabilia-stuffed office in Midtown Manhattan. The owner of Brooklyn Bowls in Brooklyn, London and Las Vegas as well as the Capitol Theater in Porchester, New York (and former owner of the now-defunct, then-legendary venue Wetlands), Shapiro is also the publisher of rock rag Relix and a dude who likes music in the way that music dudes do. His office floor is lined with rock posters and his desk is a stage for bobbleheads of Little Steven and Jerry Garcia, who nod next to skulls, gilded canes, and pint-sized guitars. He explains his eureka moment for Rock and Roll Playhouse thusly: “I had kids.”

What did he notice after having kids? The sort of thing a guy like Shapiro was bound to notice. Kids don’t get to go to concerts. There’s a ton of children’s music and kids listen to music, from Kanye West lullabies to classroom ditties, more than any other demographic group. But those, those are not rock concerts. Rock concerts are a different thing.

For Shapiro, who also owned legendary New York City rock club Wetlands, what makes a rock show isn’t just the music but the venue.

“History matters,” says Shapiro. “A real sound system with a real sound system as opposed to a gymnasium or a synagogue, matters. An air of a venue is different than a park or school.”

Shapiro’s brain child arguably came of age slower than his actual kids, who are now 8 and 11 and have probably aged out. But the concept has finally caught on and, like Shapiro’s Broolynian empire, is expanding. This winter alone, Rock and Roll Playhouse will mount 20 concerts, paying homage to everyone from Billy Joel to the Ramones to David Bowie.

“What can I say? People dig it, man,” said Shapiro.

Brooklyn Bowl, the one in Brooklyn anyway, is a large venue in a former ironworks factory, with 16 lanes and a big open space for concerts. On Sunday morning, hula hoops were scattered on the floor by workers wearing Rock and Roll Playhouse t-shirts. Children grabbed them while their mothers and fathers ordered pizzas, celery sticks, and IPAs. Each concert attracts a different crowd — by virtue of the demographics of the band to whom the concerts pay tribute — and the DMB crowd was as white, preppy, and baseball hatted as I had imagined it might be.

They dads looked like the DMB fans I used to know, just pudgier.

On one hand, it was easy to achieve ironic distance: Dave Matthews music is terrible and his core fanbase was always high schoolers named Brendan who wore their varsity jerseys and cargo shorts to class and dropped homophobic slurs because they weren’t ready for acid. On the other hand, the douches of yore have grown up to be the good dads of today and deserve a second chance.

Dave Gorelick, whose daughters Ruby, 1, and Vivien, 3, rumpus around the space, has driven in from Manhattan. He’s a big D fan. “There are no bad DMB songs,” he tells me. I am dubious. But, as I watch him with his kids — he spins them around even before the band takes the stage — decades-old grudges I held against guys like him dissipate.

Rock and Roll Playhouse taps both cover bands and existing bands with child-friendly potential to perform. As Shapiro explains, “It’s about tempo and sound-level and a style of singing.” In addition to Shapiro, the concerts are planned with co-founder with Amy Striem, a certified early childhood specialist and elementary teacher, who adds a lightly pedagogical tough.

“Hello!” shouts a long-haired MC to the crowd. He receives a happy reply. This is Paolo, one of the early childhood educators trained by Rock and Roll Playhouse to serves as mediators between the bands and the crowd. Paolo warms them up with jumps and shouts. He hands out shakers. “Shake it to the East!” he says. The kids shake indiscriminately. “To the west!” More shaking. He works his way through the cardinal directions. “Gross motor skills,” Amy whispers in my ear.

The disco ball spin and everyone is laughing and it isn’t so different, says Gregory King — a 41-year-old insurance broker 3.5-year-old twins — from the 25 to 30 DMB concerts he’s attended. “Although,” he allows, “normally I’m getting drunk with friends.”

The band breaks into DMB’s signature songs. Lots of key modulations and emotive wailing. I think they’re out of tune but I’m corrected. This, I’m told, is how DMB actually sounds. Dads hoist their kids on their shoulders and sway gently. Mothers and wives, aware that this is a tender moment that deserves social media, position themselves like digital factotums, in front of their spouses and children with their phones up.

The band runs through a few songs. Paolo hands out streamers and finally, mid-set, he brings out a massive parachute. Each parent grabs a part, arranges him or herself into a giant circle, and raises the fabric high. The band begins to play the song Crash Into Me, the title track to their best-selling album. It’s the melancholic reverie of a peeping Tom. The fathers sway. The mothers Snapchat. The kids run to the center of the parachute and laugh. Light filters through the colored panes of the parachute onto their faces. I can see in the blue-, purple- and orange-tinged light, the shine of pure happiness.

Regardless of the music, it’s easy to see why Rock and Roll Playhouse is so successful. Lest we forget, or try to make ourselves forget, live shows offer ecstatic communion. To be able to share that fun with your kid is, to quote a true artist, “a boy’s dream.”

Images by Kit Sudol and Joshua David Stein for Fatherly

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