exceeded at a high-school battle of the bands
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
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
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
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
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.