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High school garage bands rock Niagara University
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Courtesy of Niagara University
Gibbous lead guitarist Stephanie Cartwright, left, and bassist Ellen Cameron, right, put on a first-place performance at Niagara University's first High School Rock Band Showcase.


LEWISTON - Since rock 'n' roll began dominating the contemporary music scene 50 years ago, more and more high school students - Niagara County students included - have been forming garage bands that seem to get better and better.

Niagara University recently offered proof: its first "High School Rock Band Showcase," an event that gave eight area bands, including five from this county, a venue to perform their works while raising money for the American Cancer Society - $1,600.

The bands were all good, all different. They ran the gamut from hardcore punk to a more melodious electric-acoustic style.

Take Limited Freedom, a hard-rock trio from Lockport. It features lead singer and bassist Zach Dugan, 14, an eighth-grader from Emmet Belknap Middle School, along with drummer Phil Sutton and lead guitarist Nick Colville, both 15-year-old ninth-graders from Lockport High School.

A quick set showed them to be good musicians, composers and lyricists, with great stage presence. They performed original works; and Dugan delivered vocally.

Punkish poise

On the group's anthem, "I'm in a Band," Zach exhibited punkish poise as he punched out lyrics to the catchy tune in a gritty voice which, at times, melted into a sweet croon.

The Coalition, an extremely well-trained quintet of musicians, demonstrated the softer side of rock, featuring the clear tenor vocals of Danny Klinczar and four beautifully constructed original works. The juniors and seniors hail from Hamburg, West Seneca and St. Francis high schools.

And those bands lost.

That leaves much to be said about the three winning groups, selected by a panel of three judges, two of them Bruce Wojick and Denny Pelcynski of the popular Western New York rock group Clear.

The judges declared the band Gibbous, a Grand Island High School trio featuring bassist Ellen Cameron, guitarist-trombonist Stephanie Cartwright and drummer Marc Gerfin, the first place winner; Kamikaze Theory, a Lewiston-Porter High School quintet, second; and The N's (pronounced N-yaaas), a foursome from Lewiston-Porter and Niagara Catholic high schools, third.

All three winners will get to be the opening act for a featured music attraction at Niagara University next year. Gibbous won a $300 gift certificate from Jackson Music, a Grand Island business, for its top finish.

The other participating bands were Zephyr Kri from Grand Island High School, A Scarlet Tragedy from Wilson and Newfane high schools and High Frequency from Lewiston-Porter High School.

Wojick said, "The bands were all so good," he and his fellow judges "had a very difficult time selecting the winners."

He said Gibbous won because the band, including drummer Marc Gerfin, "did a couple of things and performed two original songs that just put them over the top - and they showed some attitude and confidence" that was very apparent on stage.

Gibbous' Cartwright, 16, said she and Cameron got together three years ago, when they wrote a song in her bedroom and performed it at a open-mike coffee house three years ago. They then began writing songs in earnest and formed their band by recruiting Gerfin to enter a battle of the bands. Both girls are juniors at Grand Island High School. Gerfin is a sophomore there.

So many bands

Cameron said she was surprised to find out there are so many bands around the area because, at first, she and Cartwright believed they were one of very few.

No matter, Cameron said Gibbous is here to stay: "We are going to be famous and tour the world some day. I guarantee that." She is dead set on becoming a rock star.

The group apparently convinced the judges by taking first. They know their music. The girls have been playing in their school district's bands for some years and were both named to the state all-high school band this year.

Not everyone believes they'll become rock stars. Members of the other bands said they primarily love music and have a lot of fun performing, which seems to be the major reason there are so many teen bands.

Jackson Music owner Jack West has no statistics but notes, "Just about every garage band in the area has been in our store at one time or another. I can't say exactly how many there are, but I do know there are hundreds."

Rock is a blast

Rock star dream aside, West said, "I know the main reason is people have fun doing it. It's huge fun. It's true a lot of them would like to be rock stars. A lot of people like to be the center of attention. But if it wasn't fun, they wouldn't keep on doing it."

What's the attraction of music and the remote possibility of becoming a rock star?

Clear's Wojick said, "The most simple answer goes back to when I was a kid: I couldn't understand why anybody could want to be anything else.

"I got turned on to Kiss, Ted Nugent, Paul McCartney when I was 4, 5, 6 years old. . . . You watched [rock groups] look out from the stage and saw that everybody loves you. This is the best gig ever."

Kamikaze Theory drummer Matt Troia and The N's guitarist-pianist Peter Heuer are on the same page as West and Woick.

"It's fun," Troia said. "When you're a musician, nothing compares to playing with a bunch of other musicians. It's a really great experience, especially when you get a great reception performing for a lot people."

As for aspirations of rock stardom, Troia said, "It's always nice to think of that. But the fact is, we just love to play music."

Heuer, 16, who attends Niagara Catholic, said, "[Playing in a band] is more of a fun activity, a fun thing to do. The chances of us becoming rock stars is a real long shot. If it happens, it happens and I'd really like it."

He said it's true there are a lot of garage or basement bands in the area.

"There must be six or seven at Lew-Port," he said, "and three or four at Niagara Catholic."