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Bands rock for fame, fortune

The Baltimore Sun

Saturday was a night of screaming electric guitars, growling vocalists and plenty of swagger as 11 high school bands competing at Anne Arundel County's 10th annual Battle of the Bands tried to out-rock each other.

Some teenage performers leapt off speakers, slid across the stage on their knees or launched guitar solos, but others stood by awkwardly, unsure of what to do besides wait their turn.

It may have been an amateur night, but the audience of at least 800 screaming fans was the biggest the bands are likely to see until next year's battle.

"This is our Super Bowl," said Joey Peebles, the 17-year-old vocalist of the Honest Life. The hard-core metal band represented Broadneck High School.

With free salon makeovers, scholarships and more prize money, the Battle of the Bands has matured since it started 10 years ago as a community service project for Leadership Anne Arundel.

Nancy Almgren, a former stockbroker and current member of the county Arts Council, conceived the idea because she thought that teens needed more activities to keep out of trouble.

The event pits student bands from each of Anne Arundel County's high schools against each other in front of sell-out crowds at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. Musicians and music industry professionals judge the bands on their performance and technical ability. Winners bring home money for their school music departments.

The first year, the competition broke even, but since then it has delivered nearly $50,000 to high school music departments countywide to buy instruments, microphones and recording equipment. The winners also get free studio time, courtesy of one of the sponsors.

Last year, the show's top four bands split $7,500 among their schools. Almgren said she won't know until ticket sales are tallied how much money the winner, Stockyard, will bring to Severna Park High School. She also is not sure how many tickets were sold because after the 800-seat auditorium was filled, concertgoers could turn in their tickets for re-sale to latecomers. Some years, the concert has attracted as many as 1,200 people - teens, pre-teens and parents.

It was clear when Stockyard took the stage that it was the one to beat. With pop-sounding vocals, catchy, ready-for-radio songs and a well-choreographed stage presence, Stockyard instantly elicited a feverish response from the audience.

Before breaking into their third song, the musicians tore off their outer clothes to reveal tight muscle shirts and bright nylon pants. Hysterical screams from the audience followed them off the stage.

Drummer Nick Bessman, 17, said the band didn't get serious about the competition until it placed third last year. The musicians prepared this year in earnest, rehearsing every other day. The win over 10 other bands was worth it.

"It felt really, really good," Nick said.

Because the music department at Severna Park High School did not have time to select a band, the drama department held a mini-competition for the past two years to pick one to represent the school, said Angela Germanos, the drama department head. Last year's third-place win brought in more than $800, which Germanos used to defray the cost of hotel and bus fare for the annual trip to Broadway. This year, the money will pay for the students to see Young Frankenstein and another production, she said.

The other prizes have also gotten better. For the past few years, BMI has awarded a scholarship to the best songwriter for the three-day summer songwriting workshop at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Almgren said she tries to make the competition more professional each year, featuring workshops on production, songwriting and the music business.

"It's not about one event, it's about creating a music scene," said Almgren, who would like to start a statewide competition with each county sending a band.

The Battle of the Bands forces bands to improve their skills, said Danny Mays, a former contestant and bass player for Beretta Jane. He also emceed the event.

"At a time when the good venues are few and far between, this inspires kids to work harder," Mays said.

North County was the only school to send two bands, in response to a request to help fill out the show. Kill the Mourning won the second slot.

"That is one of the best things to happen to us," said Allen Shaner, the 15-year-old lead vocalist. "People don't know what we sound like. We want them to hear us."

For bands with an expiration date at graduation, the experience is unforgettable.

"If nothing else, it gives them the chance to feel like rock stars for one night," Mays said.

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