A brisk Saturday morning in November is the perfect time to take a short trip. Physically, emotionally, and musically, we trekked uptown to Symphony Space to experience Justin Roberts: Unplugged, featuring a streamlined performance accompanied by Gerald Dowd and Liam Davis.
As Ben reported to Justin after the show, this was our eighth time seeing one of his shows (and the fifth time at Symphony Space). This was surprising to me only because program director Darren Critz opened the event by stating Roberts had performed at the venue for a decade – meaning we've actually somehow missed five of his concerts.
As I explained to the boys on our train ride into Manhattan, this show would be similar to Justin's 2015 KindieComm set, where he played with Trout Fishing in America, more than a full band set, such as the one we saw in April at the New Victory Theater. Indeed, it was reminiscent on many of the tunes, such as set closer "Willy Was a Whale." However there was also glockenspiel and ukelele and mandolin (albeit with a busted string), which was a departure from both of those performances.
Justin and company were up for the challenge of a theater full of youngsters, many of whom had their own ideas about what entertained them. There appeared to be an ongoing conversation between Roberts and a front-row child obsessed with the film Hotel Transylvania. Another concertgoer got so into the music that she strayed too far from her father. "Emma, come down front," he announced between songs. [Emma was successfully located less than a minute later, halfway across the venue]
Despite these distractions, the trio went through a setlist of old favorites ("Pop Fly") and new songs ("Must Be This Tall to Ride"). There were even performances of the little-heard "Kickboard Baby" and "Polar Bear" from 2012's LULLABY CD. Justin, Gerald, and Liam worked hard to make their musical byplay appear effortless. Or maybe it just looked that way from more than a decade of playing together. Either way, at least the adults kept the crowd noise to below a dull roar so they could hear the artistry. On the hazards of being a children's musician.
Symphony Space does promote more than music for kids – this was the inaugural "Social Space," which featured sponsors giving samples of child-friendly products and services, such as Dolphin Organics bath products. The Upper West Side location also draws a wide base, obviously, since we've been coming since 2004 from Queens. We even got to say hello to Jason, one-half of the Pop-Ups, who headline the venue on January 9.
Justin did the obligatory merch plug for his CDs, books, and shirts on display at the back of the auditorium. But he also stated that he's working on a stripped-down number of tunes for an upcoming release "in the future." Hopefully the CD will be ready in time for his next appearance in the New York area. We'll be physically, emotionally, and musically prepared to make the trek to experience it live.