When: Friday at 3:30 and 6 p.m.
Where: Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen , 2880 Mountain Road, Glen Allen
Cost: $15 adults, $10 children under 16 years
Details: www.artsglenallen.com or (804) 261-ARTS (2787)
Artists generally cringe at comparisons to other artists, but among children’s performers, such comparisons — especially favorable comparisons to entertainers palatable to parents –are like gold.
Nearly 10 years into a career that began as a clever distraction, popular children’s musician Justin Roberts says he’s quite pleased with the favorable comparisons he receives.
The Chicago-based singer-songwriter, who appears for two shows this Friday at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, evokes popular acts such as the Shins, the Barenaked Ladies, a nip of Beatles and great heaping gobs of late 1970s and early 1980s indie acts. There’s very little Raffi detectable here.
“When I make records, I try to make songs that I’d want to listen to myself as an adult,” Roberts said last week from his home. “But luckily kids have responded, too.”
It’s worked so far for a man who began on his current career arc with a day job as a Minneapolis-area Montessori preschool teacher in 1992. His daily gig with kids was at the time a sideline to his secret ambition as frontman for an alt-indie-folk rock band.
“It was very eclectic acoustic music,” Roberts said of his band. “We played everything from soft ballads to screaming punk rock. [The band] kind of tried to push the envelope and have fun — I think that spilled into what I do for the kids.”
Between gigs at smoky bars, Roberts, who looks in pictures not unlike a less gaunt and far happier Tom Verlaine of the punk band Television, was bringing his guitar to the preschool as a six-stringed classroom aid. He began penning tunes for his younger audience and in 1997, with the help of producer-friend Liam Davis, recorded his album debut “Great Big Sun.” Around the same time, he moved to Chicago to pursue his Ph.D.
“I wasn’t really thinking of being a children’s entertainer, I just put out the record,” Roberts said. By the time he released his “Yellow Bus” album in 2001, things were picking up steam. “We started getting orders via our P.O. Box from all over — from people we didn’t even know.”
Roberts said he took a leap, touring on his own to promote the record “anywhere that would have me.”
One gig was in a maternity shop in SoHo. Another was the Italian festival in Richmond. Roberts said his non-Italianness made him the odd man out at his first performance here, but the gig put Richmond on his map of places he enjoys playing.
By 2003, Roberts’ efforts on the road were paying off. “We were getting better and better shows,” and he’d added a backing band the aptly tagged Not Ready for Naptime Players.
With each successive album, Roberts said, he has resisted the temptation to dumb down his music. Though his songs reflect the trials of toddlerhood or struggles with siblings, Roberts laces his lyrics with witty observances and his licks with recognizable hooks that play to both of his audiences.
His records have begun to sound more like alternative rock of the 1980s tribute variety.
“Truthfully, if the kids hear the Ramones, they’ll probably love them,” Roberts said, justifying his reliance on rock. “It’s fast music that makes you want to move. I try to get into the character of what it’s like to be a child — and then musically there’s a lot of Elvis Costello and pop hooks and things that I listen to a lot myself.”
With both the parent and kid vote easily in hand, critical praise has been consistent as well.
Sesame Street Parents Magazine named 1998’s “Great Big Sun” its “Best Music Gift of the Year.” “The Yellow Bus,” “Not Naptime” and “Way Out” albums all garnered Parents’ Choice Gold awards. He’s appeared in a front-of-section feature in The New York Times. His song “Get Me Some Glasses,” from his most recent album, “Meltdown,” was played during game three of the World Series.
Roberts also has music videos — produced by the same team responsible for Gwen Stefani and Death Cab for Cutie videos — in heavy rotation on the Noggin cable channel.
Roberts credits it all back to the all-important lessons he took from the 4-year-olds at the Montessori preschool.
“What I learned working in the preschool is you can’t assume anything about kids; they’re small little adults evolving from being kids,” Roberts said. “They have this whole rich emotional side. Kids are in touch with what’s going on around them.”