It was a pleasant evening last July, and the Grange Hall in West Tisbury was filling up with family and friends of high school and middle school musicians for an event called “Spotlight on Youth” — a showcase for the Island’s best new musical talent. The event more than lived up to its billing. One after another, poised and talented Island kids — Darby Patterson, Robert Hanjian, Liam Weiland, Nate d’Angelo, and others — took the stage, sometimes accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar or piano, other times backed by Eric Johnson, Brian Weiland, Jeremy Berlin, and Jeff Patterson, the adult backup band. The talent level was remarkable, I can’t remember hearing so many high school kids who could sing so well, but I was missing something.
After the concert I talked to one of the musicians, and I told him how much I enjoyed the show, and casually asked, “So do any of you kids play in bands as well?”
“You know, aren’t there, like rock bands around?”
“How about the ‘Battle of the Bands’ — do they still have that?”
“Never heard of it.”
Wait a minute. For years, garage bands were about as much a part of the local culture as scalloping. My son was involved with two or three growing up — he graduated in 2006 — so I got to hear a lot of the music firsthand, emanating from my basement. These makeshift bands would play pretty much wherever they could plug in an amp, and the showcase — the big enchilada — was the annual “Battle of the Bands” that was held at the Hot Tin Roof, and later Outerland. And I couldn’t help thinking what a different scene that was from “Spotlight on Youth.”
Everything about “Spotlight,” from the parents and friends listening politely in the audience to the acoustic music, in the old Grange Hall, was, well, mellow. And if I had to find a word to describe the “Battle of the Bands” — what’s the opposite of mellow?To begin with, “The Battle” was at a nightclub — and not just any nightclub, it was at “the Roof,” for God’s sakes, with great lighting, a state-of-the-art sound system, and walls that echoed with the sounds of Ziggy Marley, P-Funk, and Blues Traveler. But the big thing about “The Battle” was that it was, first and foremost, all about the kids.
In 2005 there was a great turnout, probably 400 or 500 kids and assorted adults. Carly Simon and the legendary session guitarist Danny Kortchmar were among the judges. The opening act happened to be a girl singer doing a sweet ballad; the kids hadn’t settled in yet, and they were a little rambunctious, and Carly came onstage to tell everyone to show some respect, and I could see the kids all looking at each other as if to say, Who is that lady? And then after she left the stage, they went right back to being kids.
The bands performing ran the gamut from one step out of the garage to polished groups that had been playing together for several years. The styles ranged from metal to alt rock to reggae to you name it. Slow Leslie, NRG, Olive, Pink Socks, the Oreos, Coyote, John Barleycorn … there must have been eight or 10 bands. And enough adrenaline to light up a small city.
But the Roof, later to become Outerland, wasn’t the only venue where kids could play in those days. There was the Katharine Cornell Theater, Aboveground Records, the Atlantic Connection, Peacegate, the Town Dock in Edgartown, in the fields, on the tennis courts — and back before the Battles, they were rocking the Wintertide Coffeehouse at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven.
Tony Lombardi started Wintertide in the late ’80s, and it had a great run for about 10 years. It showcased many of the leading folk acts — Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Melanie, Ellis Paul — as well as an annual singer/songwriter festival that was captured on Rounder Records for two years. But for Tony, teen music was at the heart of the club.
“There were at least 10 bands that played a couple of times a month,” said Tony, “although that’s a little suspect, because bands kept changing their names. And some of the bands were great. Willy Mason started playing there when he was just a kid. The Unbusted were just getting it together then. And some of the bands were awful. But they got a show, had an audience, and everyone had a blast, and it was sweaty and nasty and it smelled like teen spirit.”
Tim Laursen was a big part of that early scene , with his band Wud. “I remember we did the first few shows at the Wintertide,” Tim said; “we’d book our own shows, make posters — it was amazing.”
Having a venue where the kids could play and other kids could see them play did a lot to spawn new bands. Tim remembers that one of the biggest early influences was a band called Mousey Tongue.
“Mousey Tongue moved to the Island around ’92,” said Tim. “Buster and Rusty, two guys from Lowell escaping whatever was happening in Lowell. They were a little older than us, just out of high school, and they came with a girl named Jamie who played a Rickenbacker bass … they were funny as hell, and influenced a bunch of bands at the time.” Pushing Up Daisies, the Angry Custodians — some of the bands would have the lifespan of a mayfly; others, or at least elements of others, are still playing today.
Seb Keefe, Matt Rosenthal, and Willy Mason were in middle school in the late ’90s when they started Keep Thinking. Matt is still playing on the Island with the Island Thunder Band, among others. Willy went on to become, well, Willy Mason. And Seb would later join his brother Joe Keefe in the Unbusted, which would become the Billionaires (with Tim Laursen), and ultimately ended up out in L.A. as Family of the Year. Their song “Hero” was on the soundtrack of “Boyhood,” and they’ve played on the Jimmy Kimmel and Conan shows.
Trying to chart the genealogy of these bands can be a fool’s errand; they tend to have a lot of moving parts, but what’s more important is what these groups represented. Tim remembers those early days of being in a band: “When you’re young and composing original music with friends, it’s the best, there’s nothing better … you practice a new song, record it on a 4-track, you just get so psyched because you’re making something with your friends. It’s one of the most addictive things in the world.”
So if being in bands is so great, where did they go?
Tony Lombardi now runs Alex’s Place at the YMCA.There’s a lounge upstairs where kids can hang out and relax, and downstairs is the Base, an almost exact replica of the old Wintertide Coffeehouse, complete with a recording studio, sound system, stage, and tables. And one of the reasons Tony created the Base was to encourage kids to get back together and collaborate and play in bands.
Tony makes a connection between the disappearance of bands on the Island with the emergence of technology and social media that’s so much a part of kids’ lives today. “There is an ‘I’ nature of culture these days,” Tony said, “with everything on an iPhone, iPad, iTunes — I this and I that — that is pulling kids away from ‘we.’ It’s easy for everyone to become very singular in their behavior.”
So according to Tony’s theory, this is more than just a phase; it’s a societal thing emanating from the fact that kids are losing the ability or desire to have real interpersonal relationships — the kind required to function in a social organism like a band.
Tony and Laurel Redington, a longtime WMVY deejay who also works at Alex’s Place, came up with an idea called Amp Jam, to try and get kids back playing music together. Twice a month, they put out drums, amps, guitars, and keyboards, and encourage kids to come in and just rock out.
“We wanted kids to learn how to collaborate,” said Laurel, “to get them to hear the relationship between a bass and a drum, to see how their guitar would sound with a piano … we wanted them to get used to playing with someone else. We found a great guy, Adam Hanjian. He plays several instruments, and his son Robert is a high school musician; Adam comes in to help kids get a jam going.”
“I thought if people brought in songs, we could flesh them out,” said Adam. “We could all work together on a person’s song, and hopefully get it ready for an open mic night.” Amp Jam only started in April, but it seems to be catching on.
Alex Figueroa, a rising senior from Oak Bluffs, has already been to a couple of Amp Jams. “Some kids just go to GarageBand,” Alex said. GarageBand is a computer program that functions as a recording studio. One person can lay down and mix tracks, and create and record music all alone. In some cases, they don’t even have to play an instrument. “On the new GarageBand, they have smart guitar, smart drums, smart bass,” Alex said. “You don’t have to play a thing. It’s cool, but you’re all by yourself.
“The first time I went to Amp Jam, I really didn’t get that involved, but the next time I did, and it was a lot of fun. I started a power chord riff, and we jammed on it for about 30 minutes.”
Brian Weiland is a music teacher in the Oak Bluffs School, and along with Eric Johnson, he helps organize the “Spotlight on Youth” concerts. Brian is also very aware of how the music scene on the Island has changed over the years, and thinks maybe there’s some correlation to “American Idol.” “The problem with ‘American Idol,’” said Brian, “is that it’s sending the wrong message. First of all, it’s all about solo performances. Plus, it’s saying if you’re not absolutely the best, then you should shut up. It can inspire some, but it can be intimidating for others.”
Brian paraphrases Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters: “The gist of what he said,” Brian said, “is that ‘Kids watch a show like “American Idol” or “The Voice,” and think that’s the way to become famous. Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And then they should get their friends to come in, and they’ll suck too. And then they’ll start playing, and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives, and that’s what we did, and we became Nirvana.’”
Laurel Redington also wonders if kids are just too busy these days: “They’ve got to be in the Honor Society, take AP courses, be on sports teams; there’s just no time. If they’re involved with music, maybe they take lessons or they’re in the Minnesingers, but it’s formal. They’re feeling a lot of anxiety.”
Darby Patterson graduated from high school this spring, and is going to New England Conservatory next fall. “If kids are going to be in a band, they need to take it seriously,” Darby said. “They have to practice and have a commitment, and for a lot of kids, that’s hard. You’re busy just trying to figure yourself out.”
Will Luckey of West Tisbury has been teaching music to Island kids for years, and he points out that for at least some of the really good musicians, it may be hard to find other kids to play with who are up to their level. He calls it his “fish in the pond with not much to eat” theory. For these kids, it may be more fun and challenging to play with jam tracks on their computer than to play with real live humans.
“I remember I had a kid a few years back who was really gifted and was playing in a couple of bands,” said Will, “but he was very critical of some of his band mates because he thought they weren’t as good or as committed as he was. I lectured him — I said, Do not separate yourself from the players in your world, because they’re the ones who are going to be able to deliver you the opportunity to play your music — so don’t do it!”
Liam Weiland, Brian’s son, and one of the best young musicians on the Island, has a whole other take, one very much grounded in reality. “Pop music today is so much more computer-generated,” Liam said; “real instruments aren’t even being used half the time now. The music that’s popular with kids our age, people can’t even play.”
So is that it, are bands dead, gone for good? Has technology stripped kids of the personal skills required to function in a group? Has GarageBand replaced garage bands? Have helicopter parents over-regimented the kids? Or as Liam Weiland suggests, is it just too hard to play the techno-influenced songs that are popular today?
Mike Barnes, longtime owner of the now closed Aboveground Records in Edgartown, has had his finger on the pulse of the Island youth music scene for years, and thinks this too shall pass — it’s just a cycle kids are going through. He thinks it could be as simple as the right band coming along and catching on.
Mike points to Brian Eno, who allegedly said that the Velvet Underground’s first album only sold a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought one formed a band. So what’s needed is a new hot band — the next Mousey Tongue or the next Unbusted — to come along and light a fire. Who knows, maybe it will come out of an Amp Jam session. Or maybe it will come out of a garage near you. Believe me, you’ll know when that happens.
Additional reporting on this story by Sophia McCarron, a junior at MVRHS.
Geoff Currier is a staff editor at The MV Times. Sophia McCarron has spent her junior year of high school as an
MV Times intern.