Lisa Mathews, the lead singer of Milkshake, learned that years ago at one of the band's first gigs. "Our competition was a moon bounce and chocolate-chip cookies, and that's stiff competition," she says. To wow tots, musicians need visuals and interaction. They have to talk to the crowd, mix it up, throw glitter stars.
"I realized I can't play my guitar as much anymore, because I have to go out and dance with the kids," Mathews says. "When we do a cover of 'Love Train,' I can't stay on stage, because I'm the engine."
Mathews and her cohorts — band co-founder and guitarist Mikel Gehl, bass player Cord Neal, electric guitarist Michael Sheppard, drummer Tom Moon and accordion and keyboard player Brian Simms — are used to having a happy mess following them wherever they tour. On April 27, the destination for the Baltimore band is the big Performing Arts Center at Menlo-Atherton High School.
All of Milkshake's musicians are also veterans of grown-up rock music. Mathews and Gehl had an indie-rock band called Love Riot for 10 years before they both had children with their respective spouses. Suddenly, instead of playing smoky bars and singing about the dating life, they found themselves writing lyrics like "Come on along, sing a Happy Song / Put a skip in your step and you can't go wrong." Milkshake's first album, appropriately named "Happy Songs," came out in 2002.
"It was a natural evolution," Mathews says.
It also wasn't bad for their careers. Mathews and Gehl have found themselves playing to large crowds and in venues that far exceeded their earlier grown-up dreams. "The biggest venue we ever did (as Love Riot) was the Lilith Fair, and that was at the very opening of the fair at like 9 o'clock in the morning," Mathews says.
Now the musicians play at sites on the order of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Sonoma County. Milkshake has released five CDs, including 2009's "Great Day," which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Musical Album for Children. Milkshake music videos have been shown on the Nickelodeon preschool site Noggin (now Nick Jr.) and on PBS KIDS.
The rewards go beyond venues and honors, of course. Besides getting to have fun performing for enthusiastic youngsters, Mathews and Gehl have found more musical freedom in children's music. Kids aren't limited by genre; they don't care if you throw a little ragtime, country or pedal steel guitar into your rock band. On the most recent Milkshake album, "Got a Minute?," the musicians even enlisted a child rapper to contribute to a tune called "Baltimore."
Kyf Brewer from the Irish band Barleyjuice makes a number of appearances on the new album as well, including singing the lyrical, peaceful duet "Starry, Starry Night" with Mathews. The two of them sound like wistful kids staring up at the heavens.
The album also experiments with song length. Nearly all the songs on the album are two minutes or less: nice for youthful attention spans (or perhaps everyone's, nowadays).
As the years go by, Milkshake is growing up along with the musician's children. Mathews' daughter was once a baby gurgling at the beginning of a song called "When You Were Born"; now she's 12 and sings her own original song, "One Day," on "Got a Minute?"
The subject matter on Milkshake albums has matured as well, from songs about the joy of pancakes and learning to count to tunes about tolerance and anti-bullying, friends and enemies.
"Our kids are getting older, and Milkshake was meant to end when they were no longer interested," Mathews says. She allows that she does think about life after Milkshake, about singing her own grown-up songs again, giving performances that don't require wearing a tutu.
But for the time being, it's back to the confetti. As Mathews chats on the phone from her Baltimore home, there's a big box of the stuff nearby just waiting to be opened.
The band has a show that night, and Milkshake can't play "Bottle of Sunshine" without a cannon exploding yellow confetti onstage. Kids can't resist scooping the stuff up. "I remember one mother saying, 'You leave that sunshine there,'" Mathews said, laughing.
What: The kid-rock band Milkshake performs a concert at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton High School.
Where: 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton.
When: Saturday, April 27, from 1 to 2 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $8.
Info: Go to menlopark.eventbrite.com or call 650-330-2223.