The current crown prince of kiddie rock is coming to town. The news that Justin Roberts and his Not Ready for Naptime Players are returning to the Ark this month has undoubtedly served as a wake-up call for their many mini fans–and their families–to make plans to attend. Roberts and his NR4NP quartet are riding the crest of a new wave of rockers who have set their sights on the preschool set, rather than on tweeners, teens, and twenty-somethings.
Back in the day there were Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and other acoustic folkies who made music for adults and also for children–a whole generation was raised on Peter, Paul and Mommy. In the eighties came the Canadian Invasion, with Raffi and then Sharon, Lois and Bram ruling the preschool roost. Then, in the last decade or so, indie rocker Dan Zanes–followed by They Might Be Giants and the Michigan-based Verve Pipe, among others–began amping up their songs for the youngest generation.
Roberts, who has since the late nineties released eight albums aimed at this ever-growing, evergreen demographic, might be the most prolific and best songwriter of the kindie rock lot. Like most children’s writers and performers, he cultivates that ever-fertile field of favorite childhood topics–animals (“Willy Was a Whale,” “Giraffe/Nightingale”), shenanigans (“Trick or Treat”), lullabies (“Count Them as They Go”), and snow days (“Snow Days”). However, occasionally other, sometimes harrowing themes less often found in children’s songs also turn up in his material: subjects like modern parenting options (“Stay-at-Home Dad”) and even death (“Sandcastle”).
With Lennonesque glasses, modified modern mop-top haircut, and boyish looks belying his forty-something age, Roberts looks a little like a cross between Lennon and McCartney and seems to have inherited a blended variation of their songwriter genes too. His songs combine Paul’s sweet with John’s salty and are filled with clever rhymes and fast-paced wordplay, all delivered understandably–no throat-shredding vocals from Roberts–but often set to a heavy backbeat backup. To quote from the early era of rock, “It’s got a good beat, you can dance to it.” And dance they do, in the rows, aisles, and mosh pits everywhere he goes.
Roberts is now touring in support of his new Grammy-nominated album, Lullaby, so expect a slightly higher ratio of soft soothers to raucous rockers than you might have gotten used to at his previous shows. But not to worry, I doubt Roberts and NR4NP will lull you or your tykes to snooze during their show–more likely it’ll be after the concert that you’ll be ready for a nap.