Rock ‘n’ roll high school

Learning to tie knots may come in handy sometime later in life. Who knows when your life may depend on your ability to tie a precise sheep shank, right?

And while many summer camps and vacation activity programs may concentrate on imparting camping skills, or indoctrinating young minds with Biblical inerrancy, Auburn Boulevard retailer Skip’s Music has been staging its own version of summer camp every year, Stairway to Stardom, and it doesn’t involve building campfires or understanding that what Onan did will make you go blind, or at least need glasses.

I’ve been tapped to act as a judge for more times than I can remember at Stairway, the late-summer concert that concludes the two-month program. And while over the years I’ve seen plenty of onanism transferred to the guitar fretboard, Stairway being conducted by a music store where guys who like to shred on pointy-headstock guitars hang out occasionally, I’d have to say that there’s a lot more going on than just cookie-monster vocals and whammy-bar wankery.

The participants are young, as in high-school age. The premise is that everybody signs up and pays their $300 entry fee, and then they plays an audition to determine their proficiency and inclinations, and then they’re placed in ad-hoc bands; this year there are 21 listed. Each band gets a coach, and they have to write and learn three songs, rehearse, and then compete in a battle of the bands concert on a Sunday afternoon, which happens to be this Sunday at the Holiday Inn near Madison Avenue and I-80, from noon to 5 p.m. And it’s free, if you’re looking for a highly entertaining way to blow a Sunday afternoon.

One of the reasons I sit as one of the 15 or so judges is because it’s “a good thing to do,” but my motivations are selfish. I like to see what kids are into. It’s interesting to watch the changes each year, too: One year there may be a plethora of death-metal bands with gargled vocals and shrill guitar solos, then next year a bunch of ska bands or emo-ish bands or all-girl pop bands or other surprises.

Occasionally a band will be hilariously inept, but you find yourself not laughing at them but pulling for them, because they had the collective cojones to show up and play, anyway, and their sincerity usually wins you over. (Besides, having a predilection for art-brut combos like the Shaggs, I secretly hope for at least one band that doesn’t care if it isn’t A&R weasel material.)

Most of the bands, however, vary from pretty good to outstanding, or as outstanding as a bunch of teenagers who threw a band together in a summer-camp context can be. And it’s a fine place to see upcoming musicians who later spring up in local bands. Although my memory is failing me right now, and the only one I can remember is Adrian Bourgeois, there are a lot.

Skip’s Music owner Skip Maggiora, program coordinator Larisa Bryski—herself an accomplished singer—and their team of hard-working staffers typically do a bang-up job in pulling Stairway to Stardom off. So if you’re looking for something to do on Sunday, there are far worse options. See you there.