School of rock, for real

It was during the second half of the annual Skip’s Music Stairway to Stardom concert this past Sunday, in a ballroom at that Foothill Farms Holiday Inn on Interstate 80, the place that once had a red airplane on its roof to advertise its swing-craze nightclub, Ace’s. Someone—I think it was Sacramento Bee writer Chris Macias—asked the rest of us nearby, meaning promoter Jerry Perry, Dig Music honcho Marty DeAnda and yours truly, what we would have named our teen band if we were competing in Stairway.

“Smoking Crematorium,” I mumbled. “Or maybe a gay emo band called Come From Behind.”

Yep, pretty lame. But when you’re judging 21 teen bands, each of them performing three original songs that were written and shaped for this one performance over a six-week period in the summer, and the bands were assembled at the outset from a pool of participants, well, after 15 bands or so, the weird humor comes naturally.

I love to serve as a judge at Stairway, because it provides a window into what the kids—at least the kids who are taking lessons at Skip’s—are into, musically. Last year, it was a raft of cookie-monster metal bands. There were a few of those this year, too, but the most distinguishing characteristic this time was that many bands had female singers, members or both. Also, there wasn’t much ska at all, a surprise given the popular resurgence of that music at the high-school level.

There still was a lot of pointy-headstock metal, along with some interminable emo bands with unintentionally funny lyrics. If there’s one thing you can’t learn to do in six weeks, it’s how to craft songs. But that really doesn’t matter; it’s the spirit that counts.

One act, Atomic Youth, was made up of 11-year-olds; it came in third. The winner, Red Sixty, was the last band to play; it was, surprisingly, the first one to feature a 12-bar blues progression in a song and was one of the few groups with funky, groove-like instrumental textures.

A few of the judges looked like they might be in metal or prog bands, which might have inclined them to support acts with Cabo Wabo guitar solos. I dug me some metal, too, but also tended to champion the outliers, the bands with tune-challenged Jonathan Richman-style vocalists and hopelessly non-Fred Durst-approved dynamics. This year, my fave was None of the Above, which would be the house band of Napoleon Dynamite if that movie had a house band, a combo made even cooler by the presence of two 11-year-old guitarists.

This particular Stairway was the 26th annual competition. The program has some notable graduates, including local indie-rock guru Anton Barbeau. The preceding Thursday, I witnessed another Stairway grad from a couple of years back, Adrian Bourgeois, playing at the Fox & Goose, one of his final local gigs before he leaves for college at UC Santa Cruz. Bourgeois was backed by a band that included 77’s guitarist Mike Roe. On this night, his vocals sounded more confident and nuanced, and his songs had the ring of future classics.

Perhaps there’s an Anton or Adrian in this year’s crop, too. Here’s hoping.