Kids these days. You know, the ones who are supposed to be slacking, vegged out in front of a video screen. Beatniks, Boomers, Gen Xers or Millennials – the reaction from the last generation has often been the same. “I remember back when I was a kid … ,” followed by some admonishment of the work ethic or manners of their younger counterparts.
The again, there are other old codgers who are still pretty cool still and, right there with them, are a new generation who have picked up right where they left off. These are the people that take young people under their wing and pass along their passions. At least that is the way it seems to work in music. That’s right – Kids these days, keeping the fire alive.
Big D’s in Midland is one of those places that lives two separate lives. By day it serves as the favorite eatery of many Midland County locals. On weekend nights, however, it transforms into one of the spunkier music venues in the area.
I was not sure quite what to expect when I arrived at the venue for the 8th incarnation of Mark Shelley’s Rock School Spring Concert. Events for the day began to take shape when I exited the broad daylight of a late Spring afternoon and entered the very familiar feel of a weekend night, with stage lighting, drums and tube amps sitting in wait in the corner.
The slight difference was the crowd. This one was made of moms and dads, grandparents, sisters and brothers. They were there to cheer on the real stars of the day – the teens sprinkled around the room in their stage clothes, ready to rock. This is when you realized this wasn’t going to be your normal recital. This was going to be a rock concert.
The afternoon began with individual performances by several of Shelley’s guitar and piano students. These students ranged from middle school into high school. You were immediately struck by how advanced many of them were for their age. As each subsequent student performed, you could see the progression of the group. Each individually made it clear that hard work can pay off the longer you stick with it.
Performers ranged from Micah Morehouse and Brendan Ladwein playing standards on acoustic guitar to Grace Wilson and Sarah O’Connell offering very substantial piano versions of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. The solo performances were not only greeted by the applause of the crowd, but also the exchange of looks of joy and wonderment from the adults present. These kids are good.
The ante was upped a bit with the Vocal section of the show. A relatively recent addition to the program, it featured Olivia Lentner performing a sparkling trio of songs and Don and Diana Newton (proudly representing the area’s adult population) performing a Green Day song.
No one in the room could escape the idea that something special was going to happen when 9 year old Hailey Allen sat down at the piano, fedora worn jauntily to one side. The pint sized songstress, equal parts Shirley Temple and Billy Joel, belted an age defying version of the Sabrina Carpenter song “Can’t Blame a Girl.”
I might possibly be wrong on the age defying thing, though. When asked why she chose that particular song, Hailey said “It relates to how it is at school right now. We are going through a lot of things. I am starting to like boys. It is a lot like my life.”
Maybe it is the girl that is ahead of her age and not the song, as she displays as much maturity in conversation that she does behind a keyboard.
The next section of the show was Ensemble, where some of the more advanced students showed off their jazz chops.
Matt Anderson, proving the adage that a bassist will never hurt for work, made the first of several appearances on the evening with a “stage front” turn on the Miles Davis classic “So What.” Joined on stage by Shelly and local jazz great Bryan Rombalski, Anderson slid and slithered up and down his Rickenbacker in a very smooth rendition of the classic Paul Chambers bass line.
Next up Shelley joined Connor Wilson, Nick Shahin and Elliot Miller on a contemporary take of the Bobby Hebb classic “Sunny.” Wilson and Shelley swapped fusion-inspired guitar leads in traditional jazz fashion. Wilson, in particular, showed a real adeptness at the style, evoking images of Steve Lukather or Russ Freeman of the Rippingtons.
In a break before his full band appearance, Wilson explained he had been playing about 6 years, with the last several at Shelley’s studio. When asked his impression of the day, he answered “I don’t get a lot of chances to do this – play in front of a lot of people. This is a lot of fun.”
My guess is he will get plenty of chances to entertain a crowd in the future.
One of several artists performing originals was Maddy Day, who would also front the band Citation Needed. She accompanied herself on guitar on Two Hearts, Shadow of You and Best of Me.
When quizzed on her originals, Maddy offered an answer that rang familiar from that of Hailey earlier (and, probably, to most every musician that has penned or sung a personal song): “I’ve been writing since Middle School. I hope I am getting better at it. I think about it as my journal. It helps me as I am going off to college and becoming an adult.”
The full rock bands, the stars of the show, were up next.
Four bands in total took the stage when age and experience increasing with each act.
The first band, Calm Before the Storm, consists of Tristan Brewer, Carlee Early, Olivia Lentner, Adam Newton and Sarah O’Connell. The performance of the band belied their age, with a rousing version of the ELO hit “Don’t Bring Me Down” and the anthem from the original School of Rock – “Rock Got No Reason” – included in their set list. It was an awfully good start to the show.
Greyhound 6 saw a return to the stage of Matt Anderson on bass, with Scott Hottois on drums and Nolan O’Connell on guitar. The group worked through their paces with some real variety – covering everything from “Stone Cold Crazy” by Queen to “Looks That Kill” by Motley Crue and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” by Stevie Ray Vaughn, among others. Very energetic set by a very promising group of musicians.
M4 reintroduced guitarists Mitchell Kent and Matt Olenczuk, who had performed earlier in the recital stage, along with Marcus Minardi on drums and Anderson once again owning the low end. This band went straight to “hard,” with a cover of the Iron Maiden classic “The Trooper” and never let up. Anderson again lead the charge on the bass driven “Scar Tissue.” Their five song set was pure rock.
“Headlining” for the day was Citation Needed, a band comprised of this year’s HS seniors. Maddy Day on vocals and Connor Wilson on lead guitar when joined by Tristan Owen on bass, Joshua Pasek on drums and Jasmine Purtell on guitar / keyboards. From the monster opening riff of Barracuda to the soaring chorus of We Are the Champions, these young people brought it. The playing was clean, very mature and extremely credible for a group playing songs that were classics before they were born.
Honestly, as much as I have tried to lay praise at this event, I feel like I am underselling it. My honest suggestion would be watch for the ads for next year. I bet you will come away with a positive feeling about this area’s musical future.
Back to the Studio
Once he had an opportunity to take a breath and reflect on the previous year’s work, I sat down with Mark Shelley at the Fulkerson Music Studio (222 E Main St, Midland), where he teaches his individual lessons and coaches the bands enrolled in the Rock School.
Shelley’s basic idea to offer lessons for bands came in 2004, when he was teaching at Midland Street Music. He wanted to give some of the kids in his individual lessons a chance to interact with other musicians their age.
The concept began to take more shape when he moved to the Fulkerson studio. In 2006, he had two rock groups in the program.
The walls of his studio are decorated with promotional posters from each of the years of the Rock School concerts. It brings a smile to your face when you see the bands inching themselves up the bill year by year. Most students will begin in Middle School and stay with the program through High School graduation. He will list off musicians from each bands and tell you a bit of their improvement story if you let him. It is clear this is a teacher than really values the students he teaches.
The concert really moved up a notch when it moved to Big D’s a few years ago. From the standpoint of a venue, it was comfortable, very accessible and had great food (another good reason for people to stay for the whole show.) It also allowed Shelley to set the show up like a real gig, with a sound system and light show courtesy of Dan Ardouin (Jedi Mind Trip) and sound engineering by Joseph Christensen.
One unexpected comment about the show from Shelley was that they actually can be a little melancholy for him, as kids he has worked with for years are presented with their graduation certificates, hugged and sent into the world. Having taught myself, I am very sympathetic to the mixed emotions of the last day of school.
Shelley’s plan is to continue to grow the school and maintain the opportunity it presents for young musicians to practice and hone their craft. He is especially interested in tapping into a growing number of students who are also interested in singing and improving their vocal performance. These students fill a real void in bands which often already have their instrumentation set.
The Rock School will start up again in the Fall, with spaces available at all age groups and varying skill levels. You can contact Mark directly at the Fulkerson Studio, by phone at 517 614 2517 or find it on Facebook.
While I was visiting Mark, I picked up a copy of his solo album Out of the Woodwork. Shelley plays all of the instruments on this instrumental “prog rock” disc. If you are a fan of artists like Dream Theater, Yes orJoe Satriani, you should really pick up a copy. The playing is phenomenal and the compositions very clever and polished. Plus, you have to smile when all the guitar mayhem breaks for slice of keyboard wizardry slid neatly into the groove. Rock. And roll.
Contact Mark directly if you are interested in a copy of this really great release.
16th November, 2023