The kids are alright

May 8, 2002 at 12:00 am

The eager-faced kids are crowded to the front of the makeshift stage. Some stand on chairs a few rows back. Girls in Hot Topic garb and pre-faded hip-huggers snap bubble gum to the tempo of their hips. Boys with sculpted Sum 41 hair and bumpy complexions bounce heads in time. There are fleshy-faced dads wielding handhelds up near the front; moms hover about, some wearing Aerosmith or Rolling Stones T-shirts. The school gymnasium smells of popcorn and pizza, of coffee and teen spirit.

The Plums are onstage making a creditable if unprepared racket. Schoolgirl shrieks ensue when the band’s guitarist, Russel Fridson, lets a solo fly during the band’s take of Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” When singer/ bassist Noah Stahl, clad in a Zep T-shirt, intones — with appropriate sneer — that Watergate does not bother him, the tune becomes otherworldly.

What’s funny is Stahl is a bit on the diminutive side. His bass looks bigger than he is. He was born more than a decade after the plane crash that took out key members of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Fridson and his four-piece, The Plums, are all in 7th grade. They go to Oak Park’s Norup Middle School, part of the Berkley school system. They play Skynyrd. They play “My Generation.”

Tonight is the school’s first Battle of the Bands and I am one of three judges. Eight groups — all Norup students or Norup alumni — are vying for a grand prize of $300. And the competition is fierce.

You’d think that a band made up of seventh-graders — those born around 1990 — doing Skynyrd and the Who would be an insufferable mess of growing pains and gawky stance. Hardly. It was both fun and surreal.

“I’m a big fan of the Stones,” 12 year-old Fridson tells me later, “and Ben Folds Five. I just like ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ and so does everybody else. Anyway, it was one that I knew how to play.”

What’s both telling and shocking is how long the Plums have been together. It’s Friday night. Fridson says the Plums have “been a group since Monday.”

Watching the Plums (and the others) brings more joy than witnessing a bunch of dressed-down garage fetishists aping Syndicate of Sound riffs, or suffering chubby white guys pushing 30 feigning teen angst and ghetto songs. The Plums’ guitar-gripping innocence — this affectation of the rock ’n’ roll star — is as much charming as it is accidental parody. It is a burlesque on the ridiculousness of MTV/VH-1, the sheer absurdity of the network’s self-importance as a cultural barometer. I mean, we all laugh at “The Osbournes,” perhaps not realizing that the show is a kind of high-rent “Married with Children.” At Norup Middle School we have seventh-graders recycling — with varying degrees of skill — the devil’s music of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and doing so with seemingly pure intentions.

Because of which, the Plums are one of the best bands in terms of sheer fun this digit has seen in some time.

What’s more, the Battle of the Bands provides a snapshot into what’s going on in a Midwestern middle-school/high-school rock scene.

The older the band, the decidedly more confident and self-indulgent it is; haircuts are more considered, attire is more thought-out, attitude more TV pop. Blink 182 being the biggest musical reference point here.

Lincoln Avenue Project is a piano/violin/vocalist four-piece that is remarkable in that its grasp of music is both tender and heartfelt, and oddly accomplished; singers Brittany Danzing and Erica Harte (both in eighth grade) successfully harmonize with sixth-grader Augusta Morrison’s violin and Will Feinberg’s piano on original pop songs. Halfway through the Lincoln Avenue’s set, the members’ ruddy-faced shyness gives way to self-assurance. One boy crows “You suck” — the only one of the night — from somewhere near the back of the gym, but the crowd of around 150 roars after each song.

East of Orchard is a trio marked by a pogo-sticking bassist and actual “oh, oh, oh” harmonies. The Johnny Petoskey Conflict looks straight off the set of “That ’70’s Show,” time-warped basement dwellers with Blue Cheer hair. The band even has a CD out.

The State looks positively elderly playing next to seventh-graders. For one thing, two of the three band members sport sideburns.

“Uh, we talked to those guys in the State,” explains Fridson. “I think they graduated high school already.”

Big kids or not, The State gets 10 points for its version of the one good Bryan Adams song, “Summer of ’69.” Guitarist/singer Trevor Francis looks old enough to understand that the song’s lyric has nothing to do with the actual year.

Guitarist Randy Roberts of the power-emo, Blink-inspired four-piece Free Element broke his toe 10 minutes before set time. He steps up to the mic and shouts, “Blood for rock ’n’ roll.” Then he leaps and hops his way through the band’s 12-minute set of punkish clamor. The band’s energy swayed at least two-thirds of the judges and Free Element walked with top honors.

“Hey, we’re rock stars,” shouts Pocket Lint Ponders guitarist Connor Lark. He throws a finger longhorn to the crowd. With guitars hanging suitably low, the quartet opens with “Smells like Teen Spirit,” a song whose lyrical refrain (“A mulatto … My libido … A denial”) seems weirdly miscast in this middle-school context of kid brothers, PTA moms and snow-haired teachers. But the dynamic ebb and flow gets the screams out of the kids anyway.

These kids not yet aware of what a drag it is getting old.

Brian Smith is Metro Times’ music editor. E-mail him at [email protected]