Justin Roberts, a star in the world of "kindie rock," will make his annual pilgrimage to the Triangle on Saturday, rocking Carrboro's The ArtsCenter with his blend of family-friendly pop.
Roberts, whose videos show up on the cable station Noggin and who has released a series of critically acclaimed CDs, has sold out shows in Carrboro for several years and drawn thousands of families to venues in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
He has been the only kindie star to make the Triangle a regular stop on his touring schedule.
While the Triangle is noted for its family-friendliness, one big segment in kids entertainment has been missing: indie rockers and musicians who cater to children and families with music and lyrics that are digestible for kids but clever enough for parents to enjoy, too.
"I don't really understand it," says Roberts, who began performing at The ArtsCenter in 2003. "It's perfect. It's got a great community of young parents who are looking for things to do with their kids."
That lack of national performers will change this summer as the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh adds two Grammy-award-winning children's acts to its schedule.
Dan Zanes and Friends, whose work is seen on the Playhouse Disney channel by thousands of kids, will perform July 18. They Might Be Giants will bring its popular kids music to the museum Sept. 19. (A concert featuring more adult music also is scheduled that evening.)
And The ArtsCenter, a leader in bringing innovative kids acts to the area, is working to create a concert series of its own.
Brooke Kesterson, director of children's and family programs for The ArtsCenter, plans to launch a full summer concert series next year with shows featuring local, regional and national acts. The ArtsCenter will make a small move toward those plans this July when it hosts the South Carolina-based band Lunch Money, whose song "It Only Takes One Night to Make A Balloon Your Friend" from its latest CD "Dizzy" topped the charts on XM/Sirius children's radio.
"We're just going to take a baby step this summer," Kesterson says.
The Triangle certainly draws major kids shows to the RBC Center, including The Wiggles and Sesame Street Live! "When Elmo Grows Up," which is playing at the RBC Center through Saturday. Popular characters such as Dora the Explorer and Thomas the Tank Engine make stops in Raleigh as part of Broadway Series South.
The area also is home to several popular kid bands and rockers -- including Sandbox, Stacy Clearman's LittleLand and Baron Von Rumblebuss and Redd Zeppelin -- who play at local festivals, libraries, coffee shops and parties.
Still, unlike Elmo or Thomas the Tank Engine, with major branding campaigns behind them, most popular kindie rockers are at a disadvantage. They might get reviewed in national parenting magazines or on kids music blogs, but few radio stations play their music. And, once they make it big, their asking price is more than many local venues that consider offering children's music can afford.
"While we do have some television exposure on Noggin, we don't have massive television exposure," Roberts says. "So when we go to a new place, it's kind of like starting over."
Tray Batson, also known as Baron Von Rumblebuss, has sought to build a kindie rock scene in the Triangle. He brought Lunch Money to Durham's Broad Street Café last year where both groups performed.
"You need a space, and I think that so many of the music venues are just not geared toward dealing with kids," he says. "It's a much higher maintenance sort of thing.
"The venues are starting to wake up," he added.
And the genre is changing, too. Acts are rising from the crop of treacly tunes that made children's music infamous.
When Lauren Sacks, The Arts Center's associate executive director, first started in 2003, she thought of children's music as secondary to adult music, probably cheesy music by musicians with not as much talent as their colleagues playing for adult crowds.
"For a long time, all we were getting were CDs from artists that didn't quite get it," she says. "They sang about butterflies and bumblebees in ways that were very fairy tale and bumblegum cheesy pop. It's just kind of a slow process to get people acquainted with children's music and to get people educated that it's not all saccharine sweet children's lullabies or bounce around Barney songs."
The genre has grown enough over the last few years that Sacks and Kesterson have found acts worth bringing to The ArtsCenter, including the folksy Trout Fishing in America, Asheville-based Billy Jonas and Gustafer Yellowgold. New York-based musician Morgan Taylor tells the story of Gustafer, a little yellow guy from the sun, through his mellow kid-friendly music and animated drawings that have drawn rave reviews from The New York Times. This year's performance was so popular that he'll be back again in January, Kesterson says.
More at the museum
The N.C. Museum of Art has been ramping up its own kids programs in the last couple of years as well, including more workshops and classes. George Holt, director of performing arts and film programs at the museum, has been interested in adding family concerts to the mix, too.
Holt says friends with kids have raved about Zanes and They Might Be Giants.
There are few artists as creative and quirky as They Might Be Giants, Holt says. And, like other acts featured in the museum's concert series, Zanes is interested in roots music and cultural diversity.
"We really hope that people will embrace these programs, and that gives us an opportunity to build and do more in the future," Holt says. "We're very much interested in expanding our family programs. But we have very high standards and want to come forward with artists and performances that we feel have a lot of artistic merit to them. That's why we've been holding off."
Zanes, who will make a stop in Greensboro in July, says the group gets a lot of requests.
"Sometimes it's people who feel like their part of the world is ready for us," says Zanes, who recently released "The Welcome Table," a collection of mostly gospel music that benefits a group that helps immigrants. "We love going to the South."
Zanes prefers to call his music family music, not kids music. And his shows include a lot of singing and dancing. He says he wants them to be as much like a little Grateful Dead show as possible.
"What we're doing is for all ages," he says. "The adults are probably going to like it as much as the kids. It's really just the old-fashioned way. It's really music for people who want to come together."
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