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Singer's 'Yellow Bus' Has Arrived

April 26, 2001|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With his mellow, James Taylor-ish folk-pop style, Justin Roberts has what all the best children's recording artists have: cross-generational appeal.

A fairly new entry in the field, Roberts has followed up his first children's CD--the highly praised 1998 release, "Great Big Sun"--with a second that is just as entertainingly wacky, thoughtful and fun. The new release, "Yellow Bus," combines gentle, confidence-building messages about empathy ("Mama Is Sad"), appreciating differences ("Giraffe/Nightingale") and doing big-kid things ("Tie Your Shoe") with sing-along, smart silliness ("Willie Was a Whale," "Hey Hippopotamus," "Tickle My Toes").

The Chicago-based Roberts will perform family concerts Saturday at the Parent, Baby & Child Expo/Kids Fair in Woodland Hills, and Sunday at McCabe's as part of its professional children's concert series.

Roberts, who started out making music for adults, and still does, fell into children's music without really intending to--he was a Montessori preschool teacher--and then fell in love with it.

After college, he explains, "I thought I needed to make money some way, so I took a job as a preschool teacher. That's when I started writing songs--more from necessity than anything else: We'd have monthly themes and I wanted to do things with the kids related to those. I just discovered I had a knack for it."

Roberts kept writing songs after he left the school and "made a bunch of demos" that he sent to friends as a Christmas present, one of whom was an independent record producer, Liam Davis.

"He asked me if I'd like to record it professionally. I did and then started playing for kids around that time, but even then I wasn't thinking of it as a career."

But when orders for "Great Big Sun" started multiplying, Roberts realized that what he had to say musically was striking a chord.

In "Yellow Bus," he gives familiar kids' music territory his own playful and soulful twist. In "Mama Is Sad," a little boy finds that whereas his toys don't cheer up his downcast mother, his hand in hers does. In the comical "Thought It Was a Monster," a man confidently assuages his child's fear of some strange noises, explaining them one by one. Then Dad comes to one that he can't explain--and finds himself quaking with his boy under the covers.

"I didn't want the parent to be able to solve all the problems," Roberts said, laughing. "I don't think that's the real world."

"Hey Hippopotamus" is a dance-along song that Roberts loves to coax adults into participating in during concerts.

"I want the adults to be as free as children are in terms of their lack of self-consciousness," he says. "Once they cross the line, it's amazing. It's this joyous event, everyone standing up and doing something silly. There's just something great about that."

Roberts still performs for adults with his band in Chicago, "but playing for kids is one of the most rewarding things I've done. And it takes so much energy," he adds with a laugh. "You feel like you could play about three sets of rock 'n' roll and use the same amount of energy that you use in one 45-minute set for kids."

*

* "Justin Roberts in Concert," Parent, Baby & Child Expo/Kids Fair, Parkman Middle School (outdoors), 20800 Burbank Blvd., Woodland Hills, Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Expo admission: adults, $5; ages 14 and under, free. (310) 358-9090. McCabe's Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, Sunday at 11 a.m. Adults, $6; ages 2 to 10, $3; under age 2, free. (310) 828-4497.

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