School of Rock House Band prepares for performance at The Bitter End
Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Joni Mitchell.
Following in the footsteps of folk heroes might be seem like a tall task for most musicians but for 11 aspiring performers from Ridgefield’s School of Rock House Band, Saturday night’s show at New York City’s landmark nightclub, The Bitter End, marks a great opportunity — a chance to create their own history on the same stage that has produced some of the industry’s most legendary figures.
“We’re feeling pretty good about it,” said drummer Owen Lofaso.
“It’s very exciting,” added Juliette Axen, a singer who recently joined the House Band.
Some of the band members have played at notable venues — The Wall Street Theater in Norwalk, The Palace Theater in Waterbury, and The Chance Theater in Poughkeepsie, but The Bitter End represents a breakthrough into the New York City music scene.
“The Bitter End is iconic,” said Adam Cirillo, who teaches School of Rock’s House Band in Ridgefield. “Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga — the list goes on and on of notable people who have performed at that venue and shared that stage. We’re very fortunate to be part of that history now.”
Toto to The Beatles
The House Band, which is comprised of middle and high school students from Ridgefield and surrounding towns, features the 11 top students in their age group that attend the School of Rock.
Band members who play the same instrument rotate from lead to backup roles depending on the song being performed.
In addition to representing the business by playing at local events like SummerFest and the Holiday Stroll, the young rockers have an extra two-hour band practice on Fridays when they work together honing songs on their setlist and harmonizing their individual sounds.
“Today, we’re going for three hours because the kids are off of school, and because we’ve got this special gig at The Bitter End,” explained Cirillo in late December, two weeks prior to band’s schedule performance in New York Saturday, Jan. 12. “We typically have a little meeting before we start where we go over the songs on the setlist, talk through each song, and then try to pick out an order in which to go through them...
“What I’m always looking for in the rehearsal room is tempo. There’s certain sections of each song that need work...
“The kids hate being told to do it again — or play it again, but that’s really when I find them improving,” he said. “Through that repetition and playing off each other over and over again.”
So what’s on the setlist?
“We have seven songs and they’re all covers from other famous bands,” said singer Tatiana Carmona, who performs next to her brother, Pablo.
“We’re covering everything from Toto to The Beatles to Jimi Hendrix to Amy Winehouse to Led Zeppelin for this show,” added Cirillo. “It’s a cool array of genres …
“All of the songs are new for these kids,” he added. “And we picked them because we like to challenge kids with material they wouldn’t otherwise be picking up … We started out with 13 songs and got it down to the real number for this show, which is seven.”
When asked to identify musicians who inspire them, the nine members in attendance for the band’s Dec. 28 practice offered a wide range of answers.
“Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Janis Joplin,” said Tatiana Carmona
“Michael Jackson, Stevie Ray Vaughan,” added Axen, providing her own list of famous vocalists.
Walker Liebowitz, who plays guitar alongside Marc DiGiacomo and Jake Arnowitz, said he modeled his playing after Eddie Van Halen and Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day fame.
DiGiacomo, for his part, has already played alongside one of his idols.
“Buddy Guy is one of mine,” he said. “And I got to play with at the [Ridgefield] Playhouse earlier this year which was awesome. He pulled me on stage and we jammed out together for a few songs.”
“Mike McCready from Pearl Jam,” said DiGiacomo, who also rotates and plays bass in the band.
“From the classic rock era, I’m really into what Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix were able to do,” he added.
Those weren’t the only classic rockers mentioned in the roundtable discussion.
“Mick Jagger is mine,” said Pablo Carmona, the band’s longest-tenured singer. “I love how he performs on stage and how he sounds.”
The band’s drummers gave shoutouts to some less-known names.
“Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie,” said Lofaso.
“Who are they?” asked two members of the band simultaneously.
“Really famous drummers,” Lofaso and Cirillo answered together.
David Bryce, the band’s newest drummer, also picked out two of his favorite percussionists.
“Alex Van Halen and Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones.”
While the performers who inspire them might have produced a long list of famous people, the band was much more succinct in its response to who shaped their taste — and interest — in music.
“My parents,” said Liebowitz, without hesitation.
The Carmona siblings agreed.
“My dad, 100%,” said Tatiana.
“He goes through phases,” added Pablo. “One day he’s very into the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers and the next he’s into gospel music.”
“My dad’s also a huge Grateful Dead fan,” said Lofaso. “James Taylor, Rolling Stones — he loves all the classic rock bands.”
Axen received influence from a source other than her parents: her brothers.
“They first joined the School of Rock because they were into Guitar Hero and playing the drums and listening to AC/DC,” she said. “I came in here after the signed up.”
Pablo also had an impact on his younger sister becoming a vocalist.
“My brother was the star and he was always performing here,” Tatiana recalled. “I begged my parents for a lesson.
“And they found out pretty quickly that she has a huge voice,” Cirillo said.
Digiacomo was the lone band member who credited his grandparents for pushing him toward music.
“My grandparents live in Florida,” he said. “When I was younger, I played guitar with my grandpa and that’s how I got to be pretty good.”
Practice makes perfect
Cirillo said that the students who are selected to play in the House Band are expected to practice on their own every day, in addition to attending the additional practice session on Friday afternoons.
“I try and play for at least 30 minutes every day,” said Jake Almsted, the band’s 11-year-old keyboardist.
“I’d say I pick up my guitar and play three hours over the course of two days,” said Liebowitz. “It’s usually more here and there during the week.”
“Definitely every day — or at the very least every other day,” said Bryce, the drummer.
How about the singers? Do they call in family members to the living room and do their rendition of “Respect”?
“No, I like practicing whenever I’m alone,” said Tatiana Carmona.
Despite The Rolling Stones’ insistence that “Time Is On Your Side,” the members of the School of Rock’s House Band feel that the biggest hurdle standing in the way of their creative spirit is week-to-week grind of the school year.
“I wish we could spend more time together rehearsing and practicing,” said Liebowitz.
“They have a lot of things going on in their life, whether it’s homework or sports or other commitments during the week or on the weekend,” added Cirillo, “I know it can be a lot for them.”
In the midst of everything else going on in their lives, these 11 young musicians have to step up to the challenge of playing music at a professional level in front of a crowd of 230 people — in a venue that will be celebrating its 60th birthday soon.
“Everyone is getting better and better, I can assure you that,” said Cirillo. “These kids are eager to get on the stage at The Bitter End and show off all the songs they’ve been working so hard on over these last couple of months.”