Would it surprise you to learn that Portland is the kiddie music capital of the world? Of course, that's not entirely quantifiable, but it feels true, and no less an expert than the Zooglobble blog—the Pitchfork of the so-called "kindie" world—has said just that. So, where to start? Here are 10 of the local scene's standouts.
If the cover of Lori Henriques' How Great Can This Day Be resembles something released on the Blue Note label in the '60s—all clean fonts and geometric shapes—that's precisely the intent. A classically trained pianist, she approaches her jazzed-up brand of kids' music the same as a big-band recording session, bringing in top-level local players (and her own family members) for an album that nods to Cole Porter and first-wave Sesame Street in a single gesture. She's up for a Grammy this year, and apologies to Gustafer Yellowgold, but we're prepared to rush the stage like Kanye if anyone else wins.
Adult-music equivalent: Esperanza Spalding.
Where you can see her: Adults can see her at Jimmy Mak's occasionally.
With his rust-colored beard, square glasses and rubbery smile, Andy Furgeson certainly looks the part of a children's entertainer. As Red Yarn, the Texas transplant remodels the songs and themes of the American folk tradition in a foot-stomping style not far removed from his old band, Bark Hide and Horn. Between his two albums, videos and live puppet shows, Furgeson has gradually built a woodland universe that acts as a sort of modern Portland update on The Wind in the Willows, with a population that includes a singer-songwriter rabbit and a neurotic possum that collects vinyl.
Adult-music equivalent: Edward Sharpe, if the Magnetic Zeroes were made of felt.
Where you can see him: Wednesday mornings at Village Ballroom (704 NE Dekum St.), Thursday evenings at Mississippi Pizza (3552 N Mississippi Ave.).
Julianna Bright came up through the San Francisco punk scene, and made her name in Portland playing drums with her husband in the Golden Bears and backing up Corin Tucker in her post-Sleater-Kinney band. Bright kind of stumbled into the kindie scene, providing music for a friend's app, but there's little lost between her "grown-up" projects and what she records under the name Cat Doorman. Her latest EP, Calling All the Kids to the Yard, is full of distorted guitars, rich harmonies, complex arrangements and lyrics about kindness, horses and running wild in the streets. Heck, she even covered Syd Barrett on her first album.
Adult-music equivalent: Jenny Lewis.
Where you can see her: Live performances are rare, but she plays the occasional gig at Mississippi Studios.
A veteran of the Portland kindie scene, Mo Phillips is a spiritual cousin of Chris Pratt as Andy Dwyer as Johnny Karate on Parks and Recreation. Phillips goes light on the booger and fart jokes, but his catchy, twang-spritzed acoustic pop is marked by silly humor, with songs about leaving the house with bed head, watching bears dance in their underwear at the zoo and how babies will put literally anything in their mouths. It's not all pure goofballery, though: The pretty "The Princess and the Cowboy," for instance, confronts gender roles and assures Phillips' young audience that they're totally bunk.
Adult-music equivalent: Jonathan Coulton.
Where you can see him: Second Thursdays at Mississippi Pizza.
Like Mo Phillips, the Alphabeticians err toward the silly stuff, albeit in a more direct comedy-rock vein, where the goal seems to be to make each other laugh as much as the kids. On their latest album—simply called Pants!—the duo of Jeff Inlay and Eric Levine (aka Mr. Hoo and Mr. E) ponder fish-spawning patterns, give a rudimentary French lesson, celebrate tacos and tackle big questions such as, "Why doesn't the moon have a name?" and "Why do they call it soccer, when it's really futbol?"
Adult-music equivalent: Tenacious D.
Where you can see them: Mississippi Pizza on Jan. 23.
Imagine Tom Waits entertaining a kindergartner's birthday party, and that's close to describing the niche Dan Elliott, aka Pointed Man Band, has carved for himself. Elliott doesn't have the gargling-with-gravel voice, but his surreal sea shanties come from a musical world adjacent to Waits circa Swordfishtrombones. (He's got an album called Swordfish Tango, so the comparison isn't exactly getting pulled out of thin air.) On Flight of the Blue Whale, his newest collection, Elliott weaves a tale worthy of Maurice Sendak, about a country fox who shrugs off work and heads to the coast, via crazed waltzes, plinking indie pop, Parisian jazz and "Apodidae Reggae."
Adult-music equivalent: David Byrne in the '80s, with lyrics by Shel Silverstein.
Where you can see him: Nothing currently scheduled, but check his website for updates.
Aaron Nigel Smith
For a genre born from political strife, racial injustice and spiritual oppression, reggae makes an easy conduit for songs about animals and spelling. Dreadlocked educator Aaron Nigel Smith has harnessed the music's simple rhythms for teaching purposes for over a decade, winning several awards, establishing his One World Chorus outreach program in cities around the world and even collaborating with Ziggy Marley on his own children's album, B Is for Bob.
Adult-music equivalent: Michael Franti.
Where you can see him: He plays the Albina Library (3605 NE 15th Ave.) on Feb. 27 and Kenton Library (8226 N Denver Ave.) on Feb. 28.
Johnny & Jason
If you overlook the lyrics about submarines, lollipop trees and making a mess, Johnny & Jason's folk-accented, drum-and-guitar power pop wouldn't sound out of place onstage at Doug Fir or headlining a Sunday Session at Rontoms. In the not-so-distant past, Johnny Keener and Jason Greene were members of the Portland rock band Yoyodyne, and as they transitioned into their 30s and lives as stay-at-home dads, they simply adapted their crunchy guitars and sing-along choruses into material suitable for the Kidz Bop crowd, even sneaking a Bob Dylan cover onto their last album.
Adult-music equivalent: The Muppet Babies covering Superchunk.
Where you can see them: Johnny plays the Treehouse Children's Boutique (3954 N Williams Ave.) "most every Monday" and the Portland Children's Museum (4015 SW Canyon Road) "most every Thursday."
Big World Audio Theatre
A little over a year ago, a crew of musicians and voice actors Kickstarted a fairly ambitious project, a blend of an audiobook and a sprawling concept album about a fisherman and his beagle on a nautical adventure. The resulting album, The Peculiar Tales of the S.S. Bungalow, is two discs and 80 minutes of seafaring chamber-folk charting the travels of Sleepytime Greg, who leaves his boring life on land in search of hidden treasure. It's all a bit…well, Portlandian, but it is plenty immersive, and cameos from Eric Earley of Blitzen Trapper and gospel singer Liz Vice means it stays engaging on a musical level.
Adult-Music Equivalent: Typhoon.
Where You Can See Them: No live shows currently scheduled, but you can purchase the handsomely packaged S.S. Bungalow album through their Web site.
As one might gather from his name, Mr. Ben has a distinct teacherly vibe about him, playing the classics ("Itsy Bitsy Spider," "The Wheels on the Bus") and super-simple originals aimed at the preschool demographic. But the dude's not a total square: Back when was he known as Ben Thompson, he worked for Fender and went on tour with Ozzfest. He also has a song called "Old Mick Jagger," which posits the Rollingest Stone as a neighbor to Ol' McD in order to teach kids about instruments. Guessing he saves "Old Keith Richards" for more mature audiences.
Adult-music equivalent: Jason Mraz.
Where you can see him: Mississippi Pizza every Monday, the Woodlawn Swap n Play (704 NE Dekum St.) every Tuesday, Cultured Caveman (8233 N Denver Ave.) every Thursday…suffice to say, his calendar is loaded. He also does birthdays for $250.
The Big People's Guide to Hanging Out with the Little People