While Dan Sadowsky is raving about 501(c)(3), and contemplating the best way to expand the concept of the Basalt Battle of the Bands, the younger folks have less intricate things on their minds. Like power chords, stage attire and how best to impress girls.The seventh annual Basalt Battle of the Bands is set for tomorrow, Saturday, May 21, beginning at 11 a.m. in Basalt’s Lions Park. And the enthusiasm the young musicians, from schools between Aspen and Rifle, bring to the event can best be seen in how the format has changed over its history. When the Battle began, Sadowsky and fellow organizer Chris “Biff” Phillips brought in many professional acts, whose sets were interspersed with those of the kids’ bands. The idea was to go easy on the sensibilities of the listeners.
“In the beginning, we expected the level of musicianship not to be all that great,” said Sadowsky, himself a longtime local picker. “That’s why we peppered the lineup with professional acts, so the audience wouldn’t suffer ear fatigue.”This year’s battle will have to be fought with minimal help from the pros. Only one band, Smokin’ Joe Kelly & the Gypsies, is scheduled to appear – and that will be at day’s end, when the judges are tallying scores and contestants are either celebrating their victory or licking their wounds. For one thing, the effort to get one of the 10-minute slots has become almost a fight itself; some 32 acts are scheduled to participate on two alternating stages in this year’s battle. For another, Sadowsky is confident in the ability of the kids to make pleasing – or at least tolerable – sounds.”There were some kids last year who took me by storm,” he said, adding that he has been particularly amazed by the wealth of original material. “People are now impressed by the student bands themselves. You might not like death metal, but you’ll be impressed by how well rehearsed they are. They do some serious wood-shedding. And it shows. You can see improvement from year to year, and sometimes it’s remarkable progress.”Among this year’s 30-plus contenders are jazz combos sponsored by Jazz Aspen Snowmass, school-sanctioned groups and solo acts. But the majority of the acts fit comfortably in the garage-band category. The sounds range from bluegrass to big-band jazz to jam-band to metal, and if you can’t tell which breed of act is about to take the stage, Sadowsky says it’s best to pay attention to the band’s hometown: “Typically, upvalley is more restrained, more preppy. The farther you go downvalley, the harder it gets – metal, piercings, black fingernail polish.”
The Battle, which runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., will be held in a festival atmosphere, with street-art contests, food vendors and a silent auction. Sadowsky recalls that in his early teens, while he was still fumbling around the guitar to make Kingston Trio-style sounds (it was the era of “the great folk scare,” in the early ’60s), he stayed in the crowd to watch the Battle of the Bands in his native Rochester, N.Y. Even from the gymnasium seats, watching the kids take part in that second wave of rock ‘n’ roll was a thrill.”It was the place to be, wearing your pegged, wide-wale corduroys and your Beatle boots and trying to be cool,” said Sadowsky. “They were just starting to play Beatles; they played Frankie Valli. And they’d play Philly r & b if they were really cool.”
And what’s really cool to Sadowsky is seeing an increasing number of kids emulate not himself, but the kids who got up onstage with their instruments and amps. While he notes that some past participants in the Basalt Battle of the Bands have ended up at Boston’s Berklee School of Music or the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles, he realizes that 10 minutes on the Battle stage isn’t going to prepare anyone for a career in music. But those 10 minutes can be a valuable, life-affirming experience nonetheless.”The idea is not to prepare kids for something in the future,” he said. “The idea is to provide a venue so kids can follow through on the dreams they have right now. That’s important for them to say, “I can go up on stage with my buddies.” That’s a feeling that lasts a long time.”There is a competitive element to the battle. The winning acts in five categories – best high school band, best garage band, best miscellaneous, etc. – earn cash for their school’s music program. But Sadowsky downplays any competitive atmosphere: All bands earn some cash for their schools. And he says the most memorable moments aren’t of some teenage wiz shredding his guitar, but when kids from different schools rap about favorite bands and different styles.
However, the prize money is meant to be put to good use. Some schools have purchased music equipment; even better, says Sadowsky, is when they have used the booty to hire local talent as coaches for special projects.More than $18,000 has been distributed thus far, but the aim is to bump that number up considerably. This year, Sadowsky and Phillips received federal 501(c)(3) status, a provision in the tax code that makes it easier for them to raise money for their National Jam Foundation. Sadowsky calls the new status “a federal license to beg.” Aiding that begging are such musicians as Tim O’Brien, Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer – friends of Sadowsky’s who are listed as supporters on the National Jam Foundation website (www.nationaljamfoundation.org).Sadowsky is now thinking beyond Basalt. He has spoken to other communities about replicating the Battle of the Bands concept. But while he’s thinking big, he also wants each event to have the small, community flavor of the Basalt battle.”There’s a number of organizations out there trying to stimulate more interest in the schools – VH1’s Save the Music, which puts on huge concerts, and SavetheMusic.com,” he said. “But I want to take this event to other communities because I like the scale of it. It’s just the right fit for other schools in close proximity. And instead of bringing in the big celebrities, we make the kids the celebrities.”
Sadowsky is pondering the best way to market the idea: “Do we just write a book and give it to them and say good luck with it?” he asks.But for a few hours tomorrow, at least, the tax code and business plans will have to give way to cranked amps and Nirvana covers. The battle is less about raising money and building careers than it is about those 10 minutes under the lights.”The kids are artists,” said Sadowsky. “They need a place to show it. That’s why we do our thing.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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