Gold lamé-clad, sunglasses-wearing, Philadelphia soul man Johnny Showcase is usually ready to roar with a series of original angular R&B songs and equally abstract covers. But come this weekend, he'll add another sound and look to his sonic wardrobe: children's music.
This weekend, he'll go under the stage name "Johnny Shortcake" at the Kimmel Center's SEI Innovation Studio.
The idea of moving from wiry funk to something softer and childish manifested itself in David J. Sweeny's — the Johnny behind Showcase/Shortcake — consciousness, first with his nieces, then with his sons (he and his wife Anna are expecting a girl this spring) as he began making up silly songs while changing a diaper and putting on jackets. "They could be happy moments or songs to get through sad times … there's music in the mundane," he says.
The Johnny Shortcake show at SEI then has a very loose narrative structure, and has sent Sweeny full circle to his cabaret days, but with dragons, wizards, octopuses, and massive toothbrushes replacing his usual sex and sweat that he performs as Showcase.
"I wanted to restore some silliness and carefree-ness to my artistic process. So the kids' project seemed like a perfect fit. I invited Rumi Kitchen [who plays a wizard in the Shortcake Show] and Philly guitar god Ross Bellenoit to collaborate, and we just wrote music that cracked us up or made us feel happy," Sweeny says.
Shortcake's songs are still Funkadelic-esque: e.g. "Smellbows," about having a nose where your elbow goes, a Zappa-tinged tutorial about brushing your teeth, an EDM banger dance song about a buy-one-get-one free day at a cupcake shop. There also songs about what to do with your feelings when they get out of hand, and some really lovely songs about love and togetherness.
Sweeny's Shortcake, of course, started with Showcase.
"When I was just out of high school, I had a single vision that I was to become an actor, and wouldn't entertain any other suggestions," says stay-at-home dad Sweeny while strolling through the Italian Market with his twin 3-year old sons. "My mom, who cared for my well-being and doubted the viability of such a pursuit, urged me to employ a 'fallback plan.' I snorted, 'Fine, if it doesn't work out I'll just become a lounge singer,' influenced by the comedians I'd idolized, like Andy Kaufman, Bill Murray, and Steve Martin."
The acting worked out: Sweeny has worked with local theater companies such as the Arden, Tribe of Fools, and EgoPo Productions. That, however, didn't stop Sweeny from lounge-singing aspirations. First, at the conservative Christian college he attended outside Boston, then at his own Lefty Lucy Cabaret in 2007 where he introduced Showcase — first as a humorous "celebration of mediocrity," but eventually a kitsch symbol of soul power and vocal dynamism.
"Johnny had a lot of heart — which made up for lack of finesse — but as I added better musicians to the band, I became obsessed with the electric transformations of both Miles [Davis] in the early '70s and [Bob] Dylan in '65. I realized that if you had a big, great group behind you, you could say and do anything." No longer satisfied with mediocrity and bored with people sitting down during his shows, Showcase gave up the cabaret for a dance band. "Now it's more of a legit funk act with the theater approach giving us that 'duende' that's hard to find."
How legit a funk act is the Showcase ensemble? They opened for George Clinton the last time the Funkadelic chieftain came through town.
But remember, Shortcake isn't Showcase's usual Tom Jones-meets-Prince on steroids either.
"Well, it's a young audience, so there is no sex in the subject matter obviously, and I'm still sweating my ass off because that's what I do, but the core character of Johnny Showcase is totally the same in the Shortcake Show," says Sweeny. "It's all about spreading joy and silliness and love and laughter, and in that regard, nothing is watered down for the younger audiences."
"It's really everybody music," Sweeny says. "Grown-ups are gonna dig it, too."