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Slithering Hermaphrodites!: Twenty years of singing about bugs would make us dress funny too.

All You Need Is Love

The Banana Slug String Band celebrates 20 years of songs about bugs, slugs and other critters at the Rio Theatre

By Peter Koht

"Initially I just wanted to jam," says Banana Slug String band member "Airy" Larry Graff, recalling how the kid-friendly quartet first slithered together two decades ago. "All four of us were living up on the coast and working as naturalists, teaching at various outdoor education camps and getting together. Then we realized that Steve had written all these great songs."

Not just run-of-the-mill folk tunes, but campfire songs of a rarefied quality. Around the warmth of the blaze, fighting back the coastal fog, a group of professional camp-goers perfected the art of the environmental singalong. Unlike the hobo hymns of Utah Phillips, these four then-lanky gents were all about dirt‹and getting kids to sing about it.

"Being familiar and comfortable in the outdoors and appreciating the beauty and the wonder of it," was always the goal for songwriter "Solar" Steve Van Zandt. Graff concurs. "Even from the beginning, the intention was always to provide for environmental education."

Teaching kids how to be "good stewards of the earth" also provided the drive to turn this loose collection of songs into a real repertoire, an action which eventually led to extracurricular activities.

Van Zandt recalls some of the future Slugs' forays into society: "Some of our earliest performances were at the Blue Eyed Goose, which was a vegetarian restaurant and cafe up the coast. We would play for our supper, which was great, because we had been eating camp food all week."

Eventually, the well-fed group took the unlikely name of the Banana Slug String Band, after everyone's fabulously dressed, but gender-neutral mollusk. As naturalists, they thought highly of the Ariolimax columbianus (actually, our local banana slug is the Ariolimax dolichophallus, but we digress) years before the UC-Santa Cruz Sea Lions morphed into the Fighting Slugs. Well, really only about a year, but still.

The fledging group was lucky to be indigenous to this particular ecosystem. Along with a few other acts like Linda Arnold, the band found itself in a hotbed of children's music. Larry even refers to Santa Cruz as "Children's Music Capital of the World." But the Slugs had one thing unique to their act: they were a real, working band in a genre crowded with solo acts.

Never willing to let a good story get in the way of the absolute truth, the Slug band sort-of recalls playing its first professional gig at the LeConte Memorial in Yosemite.

"It was probably the best gig we ever did, Larry recalls. "We did a combination of our own material and old classic campfire songs."

"LeConte Memorial is a chapel that the Sierra Club owns. There were as many people outside as there were inside. They were rimmed around the outskirts looking in through the windows and peeking through the doors."

Though that was a magical moment for the four Slugs, curiously, they haven't played Yosemite since. Maybe some rare lizard habitat was trampled by the crowd that night.

In the few years following that gig, the Slugs found themselves recording and performing together as a working band, and found a fabled place in the educational memories of an entire generation of schoolchildren.

Many of the kids that they mugged for in the mid-'80s were so affected by the music that now, years later, they are bringing their kids to hear the group play. Unlike so many other children's artists whose appeal wanes with advancing years, the Slugs have always taken a multifaceted "Sesame Street approach" to composition.

According to Doug "Dirt" Greenfield, bassist and midday mischief-maker, "We really do pay attention to the adults, so there is humor and cognition aimed at several different levels in the music that we play."

Even so, life hasn't always been costumes and campfires. Even for the mellowest band in the world, during 20 years of collaboration, things can occasionally get sticky. "We get into things, and sometimes it gets really intense," Larry mentions, "but we were friends before the band, and we're like brothers now."

Twenty years later, as measured by very unscientific standards, the brothers will all come together for "A grand celebration of great scale" at the Rio Theatre. Clowns have been booked, ambiences will be created and choruses will be repeated until everyone knows the words.

Steve believes the gig is "not only a celebration of ourselves, but it is also honoring the people that have nurtured us and supported us through the years." No matter the target audience's demographics, whether around the campfire, in the school lunchroom or on the stage at the Rio, the song has always remained the same for the Slugs. "We always try to have a positive message. We even have been known to finish sets with 'All You Need Is Love,' because it is."

The Banana Slug String Band performs Saturday, March 12, at 4pm at the Rio Theatre, 1207 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz; tickets $12 adults, $8 kids. (831.464. 9077)

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From the March 9-16, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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