The family that shows slides together rocks together

The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 9, 2003) – It began with an old-fashioned slide projector and a box of travel slides picked up at an estate sale in Seattle for $5 and change several years ago. Tina Trachtenburg took them home and set up the slides, and her husband Jason Trachtenburg, a musician and songwriter, was hooked.

“They were about a mountain trip to Japan, and I started putting interesting twists on the slides, finding interesting things about the people -- like pictures of them in graveyards -- so I began writing the stories behind the people in the slides,” said Jason Trachtenburg, in a recent phone interview from a rest stop somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike.

At the time, the Trachtenburgs were earning a living as professional dog walkers, while Jason was watching his 20-year career as a rock singer-songwriter slowly go nowhere.

“No one would come to my shows except for Tina and the bar staff,” said Trachtenburg.

But when Trachtenburg incorporated the slides of the mountain trip to Japan into his next performance, showing them while singing the song they inspired, “Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959,” the response was phenomenal. In short order, a new act was born – the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, who perform at Club Helsinki on Sunday night at 8.

“Tina had had this idea of incorporating a visual element into my songs for a while,” said Trachtenburg. “I always said no, the songs are good enough on their own. But apparently she was right -- they did need it.”

Adding to the novelty quotient of a rock band that performs quirky pop songs inspired by other people’s slides, the Trachtenburgs drafted their nine-year-old daughter, Rachel, to play drums in the band, which otherwise consists of Jason on piano and Tina on slide projector.

“We got Rachel in the band because she’s part of our life all the time -- she’s always with us,” said Trachtenburg, explaining that they had been homeschooling their daughter since they moved from Seattle to Brooklyn.

“It was only the natural, logical step to put her in the band,” said Trachtenburg. “Should we have her just sitting around at all our shows?

“I had this divine inspiration to put her on drums. And so we did it and she sounded really good without any practice. Then we got her some lessons and before you knew it we’re rocking like all these other crap, testosterone-filled or estrogen-laced bands out there. But the difference is we’re entertaining and funny, and we rock as hard as any of them.”

After the Japanese mountain trip became a hit, the Trachtenburgs began scouring more estate sales for slides. They stumbled upon several other genres of slide shows that Jason finds even more inspirational than people’s vacation shots.

“I need concepts, I need things that tell a story,” he said. “We always welcome people to bring us slides, but what we really need are corporate presentations, preferably from the Seventies -- that’s our thing.

“I have a lot of ready-made travel shows, those can be OK, and also a lot of religious slides. I have a slide of the Immaculate Conception -- which was pretty exciting – and I’m always looking for slides of government situations -- I have some government-produced ones of Vietnam.

“But our coup de grace is a slide show from an internal, corporate McDonald’s meeting, which I’ve turned into a six-song, mini-opera.”

Songs from the McDonald’s suite include “What Will the Corporation Do,” “Wendys, Sambos and Long John Silvers,” “Let’s Not Have the Same Weight in 1978 – Let’s Have More,” “Why Did We Decide to Take This Decision to You,” and “Together as a System We Are Unbeatable.”

Musically, the Trachtenburgs inhabit a universe familiar to fans of the Beatles as filtered through the subversive sensibility of They Might Be Giants, with whom they have performed, and Ben Folds Five, with nods to Bruce Springsteen, the Kinks, and other classic rockers of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Trachtenburg loves the open-ended freedom of pop music. “I definitely have a tremendous respect for the entire history of popular song,” he said. “We incorporate every possible genre. That’s what I like about pop music. You can touch on any genre and still feel comfortable and be entertaining.”

Traveling as a performing family connects the Trachtenburgs with an age-old tradition. “We definitely follow in the vaudeville tradition of the traveling family band like in the days of yore, whatever that means,” said Trachtenburg. “We definitely feel a connection with that whole thing.

Trachtenburg expresses no reservations over putting his pre-teen daughter in the spotlight at a preternaturally young age, because he sees no differentiation between their everyday life and their work as performers.

“It’s our real life, our actual life,” said Trachtenburg. “We’re providing her a really amazing experience. It happened so naturally, and our intentions are so true. The act and our life is the same thing.

“It’s fortunate because I have no other marketable skills. I have no degree, I can’t fix things. But I can put some chords together and some rhymes.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 11, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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