On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the basement of a Clarksville duplex reverberates with the sounds of "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath.
River Hill High School junior Ryan Peake, 16, pounds the drums. Jackson Feroe, 17, and Conor Davis, 18, both River Hill seniors, coax angry wails from their guitars.
And Aidan Connor, 18, a 2011 River Hill graduate who now attends Howard Community College, is whispering, shouting, crooning and cackling into the microphone. When the tempo picks up, his feet leave the ground. He's jumping in time with the music, never missing a note as he almost hits the low ceiling with its bare light bulb, tossing his head so his shoulder-length hair flies in all directions.
Black Maze is practicing for the RHHStival, the county-wide music festival Saturday, Jan. 14, at River Hill High School.
The festival will be the first time Black Maze, which got its start two years ago, will perform at RHHStival, which is always held in January and is open to solo musical acts and bands throughout the county, as long as at least one member is a Howard County high school student.
Band members said they are looking forward to introducing their sound to an audience of hundreds, particularly since it's not easy for musicians still in their teens to book gigs in restaurants or other venues.
"I'm pretty confident," said Davis. "We've got a good sound here. I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be a lot of fun."
RHHStival, touted on flyers as "Howard County's largest rock festival," dates back to the mid-1990s, said Joseph Fischer, band director at River Hill High School. Though he didn't invent the festival, he greatly expanded it in the nine years he has been in charge. In the early years, he said, the show took place on a single stage, with four or five bands performing.
About eight years ago, a second stage was added. Now, 15 to 25 acts a year submit DVDs and videos, hoping they will be deemed good enough to perform. A panel of judges, chaired by Fischer, listens and watches, then divides the submissions into the top tier, which plays 45 minutes on the main stage; a second tier, which gets a half-hour on a second stage set up in the cafeteria; and a third tier, which is politely told to keep practicing and try again next year.
Each act is weighed on its own merits, and there is no limit to the number accepted, Fischer said.
"We've had as many as 13 groups performing," he said. "This year it happens to be 10." As in the past, nearly every performer will be male.
Most of the submissions, Fischer said, "tend to be rock, alternative, in that venue. In the past we've had some solo acts. The only genres we don't cover are country or rap. We've just never had it," he said. Musicians that write and perform their own materials are preferred, he said.
Black Maze was approved for the main stage, and band members hope they'll have time to play all 11 of the songs in their set list, a mix of covers and originals, including a raucous, wailing number called "Frozen," written by Davis and Feroe.
From garage to main stage
While Howard County schools offer a wealth of opportunities to learn and perform music through orchestras, bands, choruses, jazz clubs and other programs, the RHHStival provides a rare performance opportunity for the many young Howard County musicians laboring in garages and basements, entertainers who might not otherwise be heard.
In past years, as many as 900 people have shown up, each paying $10 at the door, said Fischer. (The event is the music department's most important fund-raiser.) For the night, the school takes on a nightclub vibe, with stage lighting in the auditorium, he said.
One band approved for the cafeteria stage is Time2Go, with Sandy Spring Friends School juniors Jeremy Gordon and Ian Schwenke and sophomore Kyra Kondis, and River Hill junior Doug Kahn. The group, which plays classic and modern rock and writes its own stuff, tries to practice once a week, said Gordon.
"We all enjoy it a ton, but we also have different interests," he said. "We're not necessarily hoping to be the next Eagles or anything."
The band has played at restaurants and venues including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., but that doesn't dim members' enthusiasm for the coming RHHStival. "We're looking forward to it just being a fun time," said Gordon, 16.
Blowing the Lead will perform on the main stage.
"We were basically all just a bunch of friends and we started playing music together and we started playing gigs and we just kind of went from there," said Patrick Cristaldi, 20, a 2009 graduate of Atholton High School and lead singer and guitarist of the group.
Other members of the group are 2009 Atholton graduates Thomas Rados on sax, Patrick Belson on guitar, Adam Grahn on guitars and vocals and Joey Swanson on bass guitar. Drummer Eliott Yozwiak is a junior at Atholton.
Blowing the Lead is building a name, and has played at different venues, including the Recher Theater in Towson.
Cristaldi, an education major at Stevenson University, described the music as "alternative rock, with a blues and hip hop influence." The band writes its own songs.
Blowing the Lead has been together since 2009, Cristaldi said, but this will be its first RHHStival performing as a group.
"One thing about being in a band is you want to get your music exposed," he said. "It's always cool playing on the main stage in the auditorium. You've got a lot of room to play and a good sound system."
He said band members would have attended RHHStival even if they hadn't made the cut for performing there.
"When I was still in high school, I always wanted to play it," said Cristaldi. "I thought it was a really cool festival."
The RHHStival will be held Saturday, Jan. 14 from 6-11 p.m. at River Hill High School, 12101 Route 108, Clarksville. Tickets are $10 and will be sold at the door.