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Gonzo Report: Kids rock the Music Box

Youth Arts Academy fundraiser proves rock & roll is alive and well

Spyder-Head heads up Youth Arts Academy’s Commotion Explosion
Spyder-Head heads up Youth Arts Academy’s Commotion Explosion

“Use the force, young Skywalker” reads the note attached to the mixing board at Little Italy’s Music Box. Jedi hijinks might help to explain the flow at Commotion Explosion, which sees several bands taking the stage at Youth Arts Academy’s annual rock concert fundraiser. “Youth” here is broad enough to encompass performers ranging from 18 years of age to under 10 — and all the energy that emanates from them. Impossible to contain, it can only be directed and temporarily corralled, lest mayhem ensue. But the instructors make it look easy — most of the time.

Interviewing Ryan Steele, bass player for Sound Wave, I ask him how he emulates Mike Dirnt’s distinctive pick sound on Green Day songs — playing with his fingers and he moving them in a plucking motion. He replies, “Index finger and middle finger,” a direct answer to a stupid question. I later see and hear him demonstrate what he means onstage. No muted tones, the notes clean and distinct, capturing Dirnt’s midranges more than effectively. I’m impressed: it’s not just the group’s ability to nail the individual pieces that registers on the cool-o-meter. It’s their willingness to play songs using instruments not heard on the original tracks, like Nate Taylor’s piano work on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It works because all the musicians and their instruments agree on a higher level, one accessible only to bandmates who share a common vision that it will.

Spyder-Head opens the show, with singer-guitarist Isabella Slack doing songs that I thought were originals. She tells me later that she was covering bands like Turnstile and some others I haven’t heard of much. (That echoes Metallica’s MO: when they didn’t have enough songs for a full set, they’d cover Diamond Head, and people thought the songs were originals.) Interviewing Slack is refreshing, because she’s so grounded. She says her biggest influence is her dad, who got her into classic rock and guitar.

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Each band brings their own taste to the stage and molds it to their own styles. The evening features all covers, except for “Revenge” by The Illiterate Vamplifier Club. It was perhaps easy to predict that a Red Hot Chili Peppers song would make an appearance, but I never could have guessed it would be a deep cut like “Warlocks,” played by the band Carbon. Guitarist Christopher Combs names Eddie Van Halen as his biggest influence, and says that solos are his favorite thing to play, so I’m unprepared for their rendition of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” which is more of a dirge than a flash of guitar pyrotechnics. Combs and the rest of the band serve up the material in a slightly abbreviated version and own it uniquely. No mean feat to impress a Sabbath apostle such as myself, and only my growling stomach stops me from smiling.

About that growl: I did some culinary recon, checking out the menu before I arrived, and found that The Music Box offers a divine marriage of my two favorite foods: burritos and ramen. Yep, a tortilla with meat and ramen in it! But alas: my salivating mouth dries up in an anti-Pavlovian response when a staff member tells me today’s daytime menu is limited, and that item is not available. Inspired by the note about the force on the mixing board, I try to psychically will him to make the morsel available. But all he sees is me staring at him with a stupid look, and he just stares back with a blank one.

I settle for barbecue wings and get back to the show. The performers get less apprehensive as the day goes on, dancing and moving in ways that choreography could never envision. It’s a natural expression of musicality beyond the basic facts of their instruments. A version of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” brings the smile back to my face and starts a wave of audience members dancing in their chairs. And while my Jedi mind trick failed to make a ramen burrito materialize, I have time on my side. I hear Master Yoda’s voice in my head, “Always in motion is the future.” I can just come back in the evening.

There’s a lot of talk about how “rock is dead,” talk that can be traced back to the lack of money it generates, and the delusion that a seven-figure investment is needed to break a band through to international status. Naysayers predict the future with less accuracy than a Magic 8 Ball, and with only slightly more veracity than a tweeker with an eightball. This afternoon, I have seen the present, and it looks to me like rock and roll is alive and well.

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Spyder-Head heads up Youth Arts Academy’s Commotion Explosion
Spyder-Head heads up Youth Arts Academy’s Commotion Explosion

“Use the force, young Skywalker” reads the note attached to the mixing board at Little Italy’s Music Box. Jedi hijinks might help to explain the flow at Commotion Explosion, which sees several bands taking the stage at Youth Arts Academy’s annual rock concert fundraiser. “Youth” here is broad enough to encompass performers ranging from 18 years of age to under 10 — and all the energy that emanates from them. Impossible to contain, it can only be directed and temporarily corralled, lest mayhem ensue. But the instructors make it look easy — most of the time.

Interviewing Ryan Steele, bass player for Sound Wave, I ask him how he emulates Mike Dirnt’s distinctive pick sound on Green Day songs — playing with his fingers and he moving them in a plucking motion. He replies, “Index finger and middle finger,” a direct answer to a stupid question. I later see and hear him demonstrate what he means onstage. No muted tones, the notes clean and distinct, capturing Dirnt’s midranges more than effectively. I’m impressed: it’s not just the group’s ability to nail the individual pieces that registers on the cool-o-meter. It’s their willingness to play songs using instruments not heard on the original tracks, like Nate Taylor’s piano work on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It works because all the musicians and their instruments agree on a higher level, one accessible only to bandmates who share a common vision that it will.

Spyder-Head opens the show, with singer-guitarist Isabella Slack doing songs that I thought were originals. She tells me later that she was covering bands like Turnstile and some others I haven’t heard of much. (That echoes Metallica’s MO: when they didn’t have enough songs for a full set, they’d cover Diamond Head, and people thought the songs were originals.) Interviewing Slack is refreshing, because she’s so grounded. She says her biggest influence is her dad, who got her into classic rock and guitar.

Sponsored
Sponsored

Each band brings their own taste to the stage and molds it to their own styles. The evening features all covers, except for “Revenge” by The Illiterate Vamplifier Club. It was perhaps easy to predict that a Red Hot Chili Peppers song would make an appearance, but I never could have guessed it would be a deep cut like “Warlocks,” played by the band Carbon. Guitarist Christopher Combs names Eddie Van Halen as his biggest influence, and says that solos are his favorite thing to play, so I’m unprepared for their rendition of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” which is more of a dirge than a flash of guitar pyrotechnics. Combs and the rest of the band serve up the material in a slightly abbreviated version and own it uniquely. No mean feat to impress a Sabbath apostle such as myself, and only my growling stomach stops me from smiling.

About that growl: I did some culinary recon, checking out the menu before I arrived, and found that The Music Box offers a divine marriage of my two favorite foods: burritos and ramen. Yep, a tortilla with meat and ramen in it! But alas: my salivating mouth dries up in an anti-Pavlovian response when a staff member tells me today’s daytime menu is limited, and that item is not available. Inspired by the note about the force on the mixing board, I try to psychically will him to make the morsel available. But all he sees is me staring at him with a stupid look, and he just stares back with a blank one.

I settle for barbecue wings and get back to the show. The performers get less apprehensive as the day goes on, dancing and moving in ways that choreography could never envision. It’s a natural expression of musicality beyond the basic facts of their instruments. A version of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” brings the smile back to my face and starts a wave of audience members dancing in their chairs. And while my Jedi mind trick failed to make a ramen burrito materialize, I have time on my side. I hear Master Yoda’s voice in my head, “Always in motion is the future.” I can just come back in the evening.

There’s a lot of talk about how “rock is dead,” talk that can be traced back to the lack of money it generates, and the delusion that a seven-figure investment is needed to break a band through to international status. Naysayers predict the future with less accuracy than a Magic 8 Ball, and with only slightly more veracity than a tweeker with an eightball. This afternoon, I have seen the present, and it looks to me like rock and roll is alive and well.

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