Kids Play

What you see before you -- two brothers sharing a stage in front of the adoring handful, two boys singing songs about football, their grandfather's birthday, and doing the dishes -- is the opening few minutes of any episode of VH1's Behind the Music, the happy tale before it mudslides into horror stories of car wrecks, coke binges, drunken fistfights on stage, and ill-fated comebacks. It's a familiar tableau reduced to a miniature: Reuben Moss -- singer, songwriter, guitarist, violinist -- is 11 years old, though he might easily be mistaken for a child much younger, because he stands no taller than the instrument he clutches in his tiny hands. Big brother Evan, only 14, looks his age behind the drum kit, though he seems much older, most likely because he will mutter the occasional curse word to himself whenever he misses a beat, which is not often. Together, they are known as The Moss Brothers -- recording artists and, on this early August night at Blue Cat Blues in Deep Ellum, novelty act.

"Man, they're just kids," sneers one club patron just beneath his beer breath. His buddies share a cynical giggle, which is soon enough drowned out by the diminutive guitarist, who merges the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" with Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" until the two songs become one. It does not take long before smirks of amusement give way to smiles of amazement: Damn, these kids can play.

"This next one we wrote," Reuben, says in a child's sweet, high voice, "and it's called 'Heaven Got Overpopulated.'" He and Evan begin performing a new-wave-tinged anthem about how death is the great equalizer, even though it claims too many too soon: "Too many people went up there / When I go up there will be no room there," Reuben sings, with whatever rage an 11-year-old can muster. "Yeah, and it's just not fair." And a child shall lead them, indeed.

Thanks to their Dallas-born, Oakland-based manager Marshall Lamm, who runs a jazz club called Yoshi's in the Bay Area, the Moss Brothers are children suddenly flirting with the music business -- a most tenuous relationship even among consenting adults. The brothers have performed some 50 gigs and have, in recent months, made the sports-talk radio circuit, where their songs "Football All the Way" and "Baseball" -- both found on their CD, On the North Side of the Tree, available through or -- are slowly becoming ubiquitous intros and outros. Their Dallas trip, in fact, was sponsored by KTCK-AM (1310), which has made those two songs minor hits on the AM band; it's impossible to listen to The Ticket for any length of time without "Football All the Way" turning up, burning itself into the brain until you know it better than your own name.

On August 3, The Ticket flew in the brothers for an in-studio appearance, for which they were joined by their occasional bassist -- a grown man who ties his face into an angry knot whenever he performs. His name is Jason Newsted, and he also plays with a band named Metallica.

It has always been so easy to overpraise children for acting so much like adults. If the Moss Brothers were 21 and 24, Jason Newsted would most likely find his schedule too busy to lend his guidance and gear. When grading on a curve, it's easy to fly right off the cliff and tumble down a hill of hyperbole, landing at the bottom in a flaming heap of bull. In 1989, accolades were heaped upon three 9-year-olds from California who thrashed under the moniker Old Skull: They "win a hardcore novelty prize on aptness of sound alone," wrote Robert Christgau in The Village Voice. The band graduated only to obscurity, lasting as long as footprints on a beach.

Most young musicians -- at least those at the top of the pops, those assembly-line belly buttons and manufactured haircuts who would have once made suitable Solid Gold dancers -- are, at best, mimics who imitate their heroes. Theirs are usually vacant echoes, the sound of a handful of CDs being played again and again until they've left a mark -- a bruise in the shape of, say, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Every town has its blues wunderkind, its post-fetal guitar god racking up gee-whiz points in local clubs.

But Reuben, who reminds with deadpan accuracy that he picked up the guitar at the age of 4 3/4, and Evan overcome the gimmick of youth; they are no underage freak show, destined to travel rock's carny circuit until puberty sidelines them for good. They're the products of classically trained parents: Mother Lisa, a published author of a book and magazine articles about families, plays piano; father Mark, a real estate developer around the Bay Area, plays clarinet. And the boys both have a private-school education: Reuben attends the Crowden Music School in Berkeley, where chamber music is taught to most of its students; on September 10, 1998 -- he is very precise about his dates -- he began playing violin, which appears on the new album and on demos for the forthcoming second disc. Evan studied classical piano before switching to the drum kit.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky