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Photo: Mike Hotter

Rockin’ the Suburbs

Expectations exceeded at a high-school battle of the bands

By Josh Potter

Atop a raised dais in the back of the room, Kirsten Ferguson, Mike Hotter and I surveyed the teenage ant farm. Throngs of kids filed past tables of Fritos and homemade cookies, under the American flag, past the flak-jacketed law enforcer and parents busy erecting drum sets. We were, for the most part, ignored, despite our lofty position. Kids tuned their guitars against the wall while cliques swarmed and mingled under construction-paper signs that advertised the evening’s bill.

It was Saturday night at the William K. Sanford public library in Colonie, and 10 of Shaker High School’s meanest rock bands had assembled to do battle. Bookshelves had been cleared from the room, and a piece of white tape stretched from the stage to the judge’s table, splitting the room into sections for sitting and dancing. The judges sipped bottled water and looked over the clipboards: talent, visual presentation, audience response—let the best band win.

Could it be that easy?

I had some expectations, having once played a high school battle of the bands. There would be death metal. It would be loud. Heads would bang. Barefoot kids would play Grateful Dead covers on acoustic guitars. Booties would wiggle. A female member of the drama club, dressed in a flowing evening gown, would play piano; most of the kids would talk among themselves, but her boyfriend would blow kisses from the front row. Geeky jazz-band kids with 12 times the musicianship of any other band would play Weather Report and hand everyone else their asses.

We tried to prep ourselves in the moments preceding the first act. This is the age of Guitar Hero, we remembered; Van Halen are back in vogue, and kids are taking more than an ironic interest in Ted Nugent. It’s 10 years after I was in high school, and the kids are listening to stuff from 10 years before I entered—just dig the Guns N’ Roses T-shirts at the mall.

Then, in a manner rivaled only by the most spirited barroom sing-alongs, a clarion call was issued: “Don’t Stop Believing.” It took all I could muster to keep from pumping my fist in the air. Nothing had changed. This was what rock & roll had always been about. All irony was instantly dispelled. It was Saturday night in the suburbs. Summer vacation was right around the corner, and all day long kids had stared at the clock, anticipating an evening during which anything could happen. They’d changed T-shirts four times before settling on the one they finally wore out. They knew their favorite band’s set list but guarded it better than any secret they’d ever kept. They packed glow sticks, cameras, and a wooden decoy duck, just for effect. The music was ragged, but it was loud and live. Their ears would be ringing for days.

The whole thing was a delightfully hands-off affair. At times, it felt like a huge sociology experiment: What happens when a bunch of teenagers are given a night, a space, and a PA? Well, evidently, they throw a badass rock show.

Contrary to our preshow musings, the bands ran the stylistic gamut. Optimus Prime played perfectly demented anthems about characters from the Transformers continuum, while the Long and Short of It was one dude squawking free jazz on alto sax. Marshall Yesterday proved to be a classic battle-of-the-bands band, covering both John Mayer and Rage Against the Machine in a single set. Diesel delivered straight-up rawk, complete with a shirtless guitarist tapping solos through a cordless Marshall stack. The biggest surprise came with anti-folk duo Brown vs. the Board of Education. Conjuring the Moldy Peaches and Flight of the Conchords, this boy/girl duo sang tender tributes to America and Ruben Studdard’s supreme masculinity. And, yes, there was even a bass-clarinet solo.

As the evening wore on, root beer cans cluttered our judging table, and the strong crowd defied early curfews. I’d scribbled advice and superlatives all over my judging sheets, but still no clear victor had surfaced. A beach ball was being batted around the room, and some kid was beat-boxing the Mario Brothers theme between bands. Kirsten, Mike and I had exchanged the occasional smirk, but it seemed that we’d have to let the evening run its full course before we made our opinions known.

Luckily, the results of the contest were numerical, so, after crunching the numbers, we came before the crowd to offer our verdict.

Both glory and disappointment were palpable. Pop-punk trio the Ashberry fetched a third-place finish, while She Might Be a Dude came in second with a spot-on rendition of Weather Report’s “Birdland” (ha!). Complete with a three-piece horn section and the most energetic performance of the night, Number One Dad claimed top prize with truly feel-good music, befitting the evening.

But as the crowd dispersed, conversation had already shifted to the sweet thereafter. Late-night food at the 76. It was like a scene halfway through a Richard Linklater movie, where everyone piles in to float wherever the night may lead. It was almost summer in the suburbs and everyone’s ears were ringing. Mine included.

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