Don’t fence him in: Fred Penner shouldn’t be relegated to your childhood memories

Have you ever, as an adult, tried inviting friends to attend a concert by a beloved children’s entertainer? You’ve got to field a lot of dubious follow-up questions (“Will it just be us and a bunch of six-year-olds?”). You’ve got to provide some clarity (“Is he the ‘Baby Beluga’ guy?”). And, if the concert in question is taking place at a pub, there are logistical concerns to assuage (“How will the six-year-olds get in?”).

In spite of that confusion, Fred Penner’s show at Felicita’s on Oct. 18 was a packed one. If you’re imagining a bunch of indifferent 20-somethings slamming back beers while Penner tried to sing over the pool table ruckus and prove he was still relevant through new, “edgy” material, think again. Penner played what he knows — what we know: hits like “The Cat Came Back” and “Sandwiches.” From his opening hat trick (a trick with his hat, not an athletic feat) to the final tune (the closing song for his erstwhile TV show, Fred Penner’s Place), the crowd was rapt. He sparked a strange breed of nostalgic euphoria (would Word Bird call it eustalgia?), the likes of which not even the oldest or most venerated adult entertainer could ever hope to attain. Don’t try to tell me that Bono could get away with placidly calling his audience “my dears.” He couldn’t.

And if attendees had to field a lot of questions from the friends they invited, imagine the questions Penner has had to deal with. The 65-year-old Canadian began touring university pubs in 2008, but why? According to an interview this summer with Maclean’s Magazine, about 10 years after Fred Penner’s Place went off the air in 1997, Penner started receiving letters from university students making oddly specific inquiries: “Do you still have the log? Do you still have the Word Bird?”

The answer is no — at least, not as part of the campus tour. And the show is better for it. With only a second guitarist/back-up singer at his side and nary a puppet to be seen, Penner deftly sidesteps the risk — and it’s a big one — of garishly recreating every aspect of his show. Yes, he is still the adorable pedant, teaching us words like “doff,” but he’s never patronizing. He acts out his stories and songs, eyes wide, knees wiggling, but he’s never affected.

The covers he chose to play were even older than his original material (“Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” Pete Seeger’s “Garbage,” among others), with the notable exception of a quick dabble in K-os’s “Crabbuckit.” Of course, in Penner’s version, it was a cat in the bucket.

Too cute? Too saccharine? Not at all. Maybe it was just the one couple who dirty-danced to “The Cat Came Back” as if it were “Baby Got Back,” but nothing about the night felt childish. Penner’s call to take care of one another has never seemed more prescient, and his request that we grow into all we can be has never felt more doable. We have more agency now. Maybe we’re a better audience for Penner’s message now than we ever were as children.

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