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Close to the West 

He's traveled a long and lonesome trail, making his way through the dust of years gone by, coming back from the Old West -- or at least the West Bank. He's Roy Roget, a singing New Orleans cowboy, and saddling up with him are his trusty sidekicks The Sons of the Bayouneers. With a tip of the hat to the famous cowboy crooner, Roget and his trio will perform those boot-tapping tunes that once made Roy Rogers the King of the Cowboys.

Roget is actually Philip Melancon, local cabaret performer and owner of the Neutral Ground Coffee House, and he has extensive experience in children's education and entertainment. For 21 years, Melancon taught in the Jefferson Parish School System, where he had experience in each of the elementary grades until he retired in 1992. The best teachers often have to be entertaining, so it didn't seem too great a leap for Melancon to seek an audience larger than a classroom. He found one in a medium usually considered the nemesis of teachers: television.

"In 1988, I got a job writing for Popeye and Pals," Melancon says. "It was a local television show for children that ran for about a bazillion years. They'd have an audience of kids and show Popeye cartoons. Then they'd interview the kids, give them free fried chicken, and at one point in the show they'd say, 'Hey, Mr. Philip, play a song.' And bing-bang-boom, I did. Every week, no matter what the subject was, I'd write a new song."

It was around the same time that he began performing in the Kids' Tent at Jazz Fest. He'd appear as a solo performer with his original "Melon Songs," and other times he'd partner with local storyteller Adella, Adella the Storyteller or accompany Karen Konnerth of the Calliope Puppets.

Whatever the act, Melancon likes to put his brand on the material. Most of the songs are straight-up covers, but a few are, as Melancon elaborates, more about the land of Uptown than the prairie west of the Pecos. "For the song, 'Don't Fence Me In,' I sing, 'I want to annex the clubhouse and the 18th hole, the Audubon Tea Room could be my gazebo and then the Zoo-To-Do could be on my patio, don't fence me in,'" Melancon says. "For 'Home On The Range,' we do 18 verses. It's really pretty groovy -- you gotta hear it."


African Renaissance Dancers of South Africa (1:25 p.m. Thursday and 5:20 p.m. Saturday) The Fest's focus on South Africa makes its way into the Kids Tent through this traditional dance performance as well as a new South Africa-themed cafe area in the play yard.

Panorama Jazz Band (5:15 p.m. Friday) Lanky clarinetist Ben Schenck leads this New Orleans band on a global field trip of social dancing, with everything from second lines, polkas, klezmer and even Balkan tunes in the mix. Lively music and good humor make Panorama a favorite with kids.

Sonny LaRosa and America's Youngest Jazz Band (12:45 p.m. Saturday) LaRosa, now in his late 70s, leads a big band of kids between the ages of 6 and 12. An authority no less than jazz scholar and Village Voice writer Nat Hentoff says this about LaRosa: "With regard to the future of jazz, there is one solo educator Š who deserves much more attention, and emulation. Sonny LaRosa, formerly a trumpet player with Sam Donahue, among others, is the director, arranger and nurturer of America's Youngest Jazz Band."

Jonathan Russell with the Todd Duke Trio (2 p.m. Saturday) Russell was 18 months old when he began pointing at a picture of a violin, clearly identifying his destiny. Now all of an 8-year-old, he's a veteran of Mark O'Connor's fiddle camp and already a renowned trad jazz player. Wrote The New York Times: "When he solos, he embraces his instrument and enters a private cocoon, where he conjures sophisticated improvisations on the melodies of jazz standards."

Lois LaFond & the Rockadiles (3:15 p.m. Saturday) From Boulder, Colo., LaFond began drawing national attention with the 1985 recording I Am Who I Am!, which blended world rhythms and songs that gently promoted self-esteem and respect for cultures (and, in "Dishpan Jam," cleaning up after dinner).

Johnette Downing (11:30 a.m. Sunday) This local singer-songwriter has won numerous national awards for her ability to translate Louisiana music traditions into mini-parties for her kid fans. In the great Louisiana tradition, Downing sees her role not just as performer, but as a needed spark to get her audiences up and dancing. Here's a chance for kids to get their necessary introductions to second lines and zydeco.

Colleen Salley (1:45 p.m. Sunday) A legend among storytellers, Salley also served as queen of this year's Krewe Du Vieux Mardi Gras parade. She'll likely perform from her great kids' books Epossumondus and Who's That Tripping Over My Bridge? If you're lucky, she'll even launch into her performance art-version of "I'm Being Swallowed by a Boa Constrictor."

Additional reporting by Michael Tisserand

click to enlarge Local coffeehouse owner, cabaret performer and - Popeye and Pals veteran Phil Melancon will hit - the dusty trail with Roy Roget and the Sons of the - Bayouneers. - KERRI MCCAFFETY
  • Kerri McCaffety
  • Local coffeehouse owner, cabaret performer and Popeye and Pals veteran Phil Melancon will hit the dusty trail with Roy Roget and the Sons of the Bayouneers.
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