By Jeremy Gerlach
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
If you closed your eyes in the Carrboro ArtsCenter auditorium on Saturday night, you might have forgotten you were listening to high school sophomores and juniors.
Keeping your eyes shut, you’d probably wonder how ArtsCenter concert director Tess Ocana had snuck bands so similar in style to the Beatles, Mumford and Sons or the Black Keys onto her stage for only $8 a ticket.
Yet the bill, which included the four local high school bands Secondhand Strings, The Youngmen, The Shy Guys and Hung Jury, was eye opening to say the least. Each band brought its own blend of teenage angst and charismatic stage presence, and despite the concert’s hectic start-up, you couldn’t find any signs of stage fright.
“We originally had another act scheduled for [Saturday night] that fell through,” Ocana said. “I had gotten an email from the boys of Hung Jury earlier, so I told them if they could get a concert together they could play here.”
Ocana said almost all of the band members are from either Chapel Hill or East Chapel Hill High School, and that most are AP music theory students.
“Carrboro is a place for music – and you don’t have to be 30, 40, 50 or even 74 years old to play,” she said.
Though the night’s first act barely arrived by the start of the concert, its first song made quite an entrance.
“We essentially made up our opening number a few hours before [we got here],” Mason Hamberlin, the band’s sixteen-year-old drummer said.
Hamberlin, along with guitarist John Pate and saxophonist Grant Holub-Moorman, blended Far-East rhythm with brooding winds and strings.
“You could call us indie, rockers, whatever,” Pate said. “We listen to blues too. We play a wide range of songs.”
In addition to improvised material, Secondhand Strings let the audience in on an inside joke by subtly changing the lyrics of Mumford and Sons “Little Lion Man.”
“At [East Chapel Hill’s] Battle of the Bands earlier in the week, we all got [in-school-suspension] for keeping the ‘F’ word in the lyrics,” Hamberlin said. “So we changed it to ‘fracked’ for the concert tonight.”
The result? A knowing laugh from the audience, which included many friends who had been there for the earlier incident.
“The supervisor running the Battle of the Bands had the safety resource officer escort us off the stage after we cussed,” Pate said. “[Tonight] felt a little better.”
The second trio to take the stage brought a more electric feel to the concert. While bassist Ben Goldstein and drummer/vocalist Atticus Reynolds communicated in seamless rhythm, guitarist Alex Youngman – the band’s namesake – seared the amps.
“A lot of the guys performing tonight have the same guitar teachers,” Youngman said. “I just try to bring that style – with the blues, rock, indie that everyone else listens to – but put a unique mix of everything in there.”
Reynolds, tasked with learning both lyrics and beats only days before the concert, said his jazz experience and years of practice help make an impromptu concert like this possible.
“It’s tough to play the drums while you are leaning over to look at a sheet of lyrics,” he said. “I’ve got my technique smooth from the jazz music I play, and I’ve been playing the drums for 11 years now.”
Youngman says that if there were one characteristic that defines the trio, it would have to be the energy of the hard-rock group, the Black Keys.
“We played two of their songs tonight in “Girls on my Mind” and “Heavy Soul,” said Youngman. “That’s the edge we are shooting for.”
Goldstein doubled as bassist for the concert’s headliner, and along with Joey Smigla and James Allen on guitar and Sam Killenberg on drums, they provided an intriguing blend of the uptempo and the mellow.
“We’ve only been together for a few months now,” Goldstein said. “We are trying to figure out what our style is, so a lot of our original pieces have that much more variety because of that.”
At a hectic moment in the performance, Goldstein captured the spirit of the concert as his instrument’s strap disconnected. Goldstein – the prototypical rocker at a lanky 6’2” – sank onto one knee to keep the bass from hitting the ground and rendered the rest of his solo in an impassioned stance as the crowd applauded his improvisation.
“Everyone here is just learning as we go,” Goldstein said. “We want to come into every song with a ‘game plan’, but in moments like that, you have to be able to improvise – that’s music.”
The closing quartet of Gavin Welch (guitar), Sean Neagle (guitar, vocals), Eddie Burgard (drums) and James Lantay (bass) brought a surprisingly complex feel of sophistication to a concert that had previously been rock-centric.
Neagle, who writes most of the band’s material – The Shy Guys only play original works – instantly lit up when asked who his compositional influences are.
“Beatles,” he said.
“Beatles,” the other three echoed.
Yet, you can hear more than Lennon and McCartney in Neagle’s writing. In “El Rio,” he’s combined a bossa nova to envy Quincy Jones -complete with trombone – with funk and modern rock. In “A Sunny Drive Through San Diego,” you can sense West Coast influences like The Beach Boys.
Neagle didn’t even have to ask the crowd to start a rhythmic clap during the bridges of his songs, but he did need the aid of the groovy Lantay to help keep the crowd in time.
“We’ve played a few concerts before this, and we’ve been together three years,” said Lantay. “We are all comfortable with each other on stage and I think that makes the crowd comfortable too.”
Burgard said that his band also interacts well with crowds because all four members are distinct characters.
“We all have a different type of energy that we bring, and that helps our music reflect our friendship,” he said. “Opposites attract – me and [Lantay] bring the rhythm, [Neagle] brings the ‘smooth,’ and Gavin brings a quieter type of focus on his guitar solos – they kind of hit you out of nowhere, but it’s a good surprise.”
Burgard said that the Shy Guys are all juniors at Chapel Hill High School, but have not thought about post-graduation plans for the band. (EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the Shy Guys as being from ECHHS.)
“We are trying to get any gig that comes up, but we don’t have any big ones booked yet,” he said.
Neagle added that his band is still taking big steps while waiting for their opportunity.
“We finally got an EP recorded, so now it will be easier to get our sound out there,” he said. “Before that we pretty much just networked through our Facebook page.”
While Secondhand Strings, Hung Jury and The Youngmen are all unsure of future concert plans, The Shy Guys have a tentative performance planned for April 28 – though the location has yet to be determined.
Hung Jury drummer Sam Killenberg said that the best way to catch each band’s next performance is to check online; each group has a web page that will notify listeners of any new concert plans.
Ultimately, this next generation of rockers has all the musicality of the last, but for each band, social networking might be the difference between 15 minutes of fame or obscurity.
Killenberg said that with all the small bands out there, it can be tough to distinguish bands with similar names or logos.
“Just make sure you look up the ones from Chapel Hill or Carrboro– that will narrow it down,” he said.
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