Adam Ash

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Folk rock for kids goes over big (like sales of 400,000 CDs)

Laurie’s Big Music Gig for the Littlest Rock ’n’ Rollers – by MICHAEL DAVIS/NY Times

At an invitation-only press preview on a recent Thursday, a swarm of lucky preschoolers rushed the stage at the first sight of the singer-songwriter Laurie Berkner, a guitar-strumming earth mother from “Jack’s Big Music Show,” on Noggin. Ms. Berkner and her band were appearing at John Jay College in Manhattan to welcome back Jack — the puppet host of a popular series that cleverly disguises music education as entertainment — for his second season. Melodious and cheeky, the show celebrates all manner of music making, be it surfer rock, Delta blues or zesty zydeco.

Each episode of “Jack’s” includes videos by some of the kings and queens of children’s music, none bigger at the moment than Ms. Berkner, 37, who wears success like one of her comfy cotton tops. “People my age grew up with parents who gave us the music of the ’60s, music with meaning behind it,” she said in an interview recently in a cafe on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “There’s something in the air now, a consciousness that informs musicians who are parents of young children. We want to create rock that matters for them.”

A former preschool music teacher, Ms. Berkner started by playing birthday parties for $125 an engagement. “Those days were intense,” she said. “I used to arrive early and memorize every child’s name, so I could feel like I knew them.”

With tunes like “Pig on Her Head” and “We Are the Dinosaurs,” Ms. Berkner taps into the psyche of her audience. “Laurie’s message to kids is that we are perfect in our imperfection,” said her bass player, Adam Bernstein, a music instructor at the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn. “Her song ‘I’m Not Perfect’ very clearly is about acceptance of ourselves and others, just as we are.”

Ms. Berkner’s music, most of it written in major keys with a get-on-your-feet beat, is self-effacing and occasionally confessional. “My song ‘I’m a Mess’ came totally out of a therapy session,” she said. “I went in feeling very critical of myself — you know, ‘My life’s a mess’ — but I left the session realizing that I don’t have to be judgmental about it. I’m human. That’s me.”

The idea of translating that thought into an a cappella anthem came to her in the shower. “I get a lot of ideas walking too,” she said. Much of that walking is done with her 2-year-old daughter, Lucy. Most of her songs, Ms. Berkner said, are written at 100 to 120 beats a minute, what she calls the human tempo: the rhythm of walking or marching. (Her husband, Brian Mueller, used to play bass in the band but opted out to keep the couple’s personal and professional lives separate.)

Well regarded even before her appearances on “Jack’s Big Music Show,” Ms. Berkner has a career that is soaring. “We Are ... the Laurie Berkner Band,” her combination CD and DVD released in 2006, has sold more than 400,000 units. This is partly because of a marketing deal with Starbucks, which sold 40,000 copies in four weeks, said Kenneth T. Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment, in Seattle.

Enthusiasm runs high for Ms. Berkner’s folk rock at Noggin. “We can see how ‘Jack’s Big Music Show’ is doing by how well Laurie Berkner’s doing,” said Brown Johnson, the executive in charge of preschool programming at Nickelodeon networks, of which Noggin is a part.

“Since Laurie’s premiere on Noggin in 2004, she’s been at the top of the hit parade for little kids,” Ms. Johnson said in a phone interview. “Fifteen years ago most kid’s music on TV was nursery-rhymey stuff that was unpalatable to adults. It ain’t happening on my watch.”

Witness “Jack’s Big Music Show,” which spawned a successful soundtrack CD in 2006.

“Jack’s” is the second-highest-rated original program on Noggin, a commercial-free cable station available in 54 million households. It features the cheerful exploits of a tuneful trio of huggable puppets: the ebullient guitarist Jack; his accordion-squeezing best friend, Mary; and his purple pal Mel, a dog of uncertain pedigree who does great things with a pair of drumsticks.

Anything can happen in Jack’s backyard playhouse. On this season’s debut, titled “Snow Day,” a Hawaiian beach party at the clubhouse goes dreadfully wrong when Mel’s well-intentioned plan to pump sand onto the premises results in a blizzard. Between shivers the viewers are introduced to the ukulele and one rumbling member of the percussion section.

The boisterous Brooklyn band AudraRox, with its sassy bluegrass number “I Hope My Mama Says Yes,” is also featured in a video on “Jack’s” new season. The hip-hop-collides-with-classical violin duo Nuttin’ But Stringz, from Queens, will get national exposure on the show too.

On Feb. 2 Jon Stewart , host of “The Daily Show,” is to appear on the show. Also scheduled for that episode is a raging rock video from Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips, paired with the indie singer-songwriter Steve Burns, the original host of “Blue’s Clues.”

Children’s music on television has never been cooler. “It’s the last thing in the world I ever thought I’d be doing,” said Susie Lampert, the keyboardist for the Laurie Berkner Band. Years ago Ms. Berkner and Ms. Lampert played in the adult, all-female cover band Lois Lane.

“I tried the kid’s music thing because I loved Laurie as a friend and respected her as a musician,” Ms. Lampert said. “But I’ve come to understand that my musician friends like and respect what we do. It’s just good music.”

“Kids love her wherever we go,” Ms. Lampert added. “Somehow they know she gets jam on her shirts and she steps in mud puddles.”


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