Beloved children’s songwriter Fred Penner entertained a crowd of kids (and a handful of nostalgic adults) at Algonquin Commons Theatre Friday night.
Marking the anniversary of his 1980 The Cat Came Back record, the show featured familiar tunes from throughout his career, including a pair of songs from 2017’s Hear The Music as well as music from his TV show Fred Penner’s Place, which ran for 900 episodes on the CBC in the 1980s and 1990s.
Forty years after the release of his debut, Penner’s whimsy and wordplay still charms. Onstage for over an hour, he held the audience’s attention with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a collection of shanties about sandwiches, lonely bumps, rude goblins, and a menagerie of delightful animals. The understated animations that accompanied the music had an earthy, storybook quality, enhancing but not overwhelming the simple songs.
There’s a timeless aspect to Penner’s music, which draws from classic folk and country. Chatting with the crowd between songs, he noted that some of his most well-known covers (such as Wild West ghost story “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “Ain’t Gonna Rain No More,” a traditional ditty first recorded in the early 1920s) weren’t originally written for children.
Fittingly, his iconic version of “The Cat Came Back” incorporated a medley of Ray Charles’s R&B standard “Hit the Road, Jack” and The Turtles’s catchy pop hit “Happy Together” – an offering to any audience members who had, like Penner, came of age in the sixties.
(If only The Turtles had written a song about a turtle.)
Part of Penner’s enduring appeal is that he doesn’t talk down to the kids, nor does he ignore the adults. (I laughed when he asked if anyone remembered the original vinyl record of The Cat Came Back – that one definitely went over the heads of the three-year-olds in the room).
It’s a delicate balance being child-friendly without coming off patronizing or overly juvenile; Fred Penner walks that line as well as ever, which is why, after all these years, he’s still capable of delighting kids and parents alike – not to mention the millennials who grew up with Fred Penner’s Place.