Lewis Street, Distant Cuzins, Ukelele Wednesday, and Disq. Four of the many bands that competed at Launchpad 2015.
If the dozen local high school bands who duked it out Friday afternoon and evening are any indication, the future of Madison music is in good hands.
Held in the acoustically friendly performing arts center at Sun Prairie High School, the Wisconsin School Music Association’s Launchpad Regional Competition is not your dad’s garage band contest. As the only program of its kind in the country, Launchpad welcomes all genres and seeks to extend the reach of music education in Wisconsin by giving students, well, a launching pad to succeed in groups formed outside of traditional music classroom ensembles.
During five hours of music — bands performed one set of three songs each, the vast majority of them original compositions — an estimated 400 fans filtered in and out of the center. In the end, the judges chose three winners who will perform at Summerfest’s Johnson Controls World Sound Stage in Milwaukee. All three also advanced to the state finals, slated for The Sett inside the UW’s Union South on June 13. There, they will compete against the three winners from each of the Milwaukee, Green Bay and Eau Claire regionals.
The winner of state competition will receive the prestigious Les Paul Launchpad Award, a second Summerfest slot, a professional recording session and a Yamaha equipment package for the members’ school. That band also will play the Les Paul Centennial Birthday Party in Waukesha on Aug. 6.
Here are the three winners from Friday’s Madison Regionals:
• After the Rain: A relentless retro-rock trio from Madison West that’s gutsy enough to mention the term “grunge” in its Facebook page bio. These guys were a 2014 Launchpad finalist band and performed during the Vans Warped Tour stop in Milwaukee last summer.
• Distant Cuzins: Another state finalist from last year, this Oregon High School four-piece closed the competition with a raucous rockabilly-meets-classic-rock performance that peaked with a hot-shot guitar-solo battle between Nate Krause and Sam Miess.
• The Whyskers: A heavy-rock power trio from (again) Madison West with fancy licks and a hearty appetite for jams.
Disq, a quartet composed of students from Shabazz, Madison East, Mount Horeb and Viroqua’s Youth Initiative high schools, featured Isaac de Broux-Slone playing the second-best guitar solo of the night (behind Distant Cuzins’ duel) and was named an alternate in case any of the three winning bands is unable to perform at the finals.
A three-judge panel of local music heroes — Phil Lyons, Lucas Cates and Shane Tracy — critiqued each band. Scoring was based on tuning, balance, creativity, stage presence and musical technique. In the case of the three winning bands and the alternate, all members played with sophistication beyond their years.
Other bands in the competition ranged from the acoustic guitar duo Blossom Punch (Middleton) to the 10-member brass ensemble Big, Fat n’ Funky (Madison West), and from the eclectic collective Ukulele Wednesday (Madison Memorial) to the pop-punk angst of Dropout Valedictorians (Sun Prairie).
Friday’s lineup was rounded out by Lewis Street (Middleton), Take the King (Oregon, Madison Memorial, Madison West and Mount Horeb), Waiting for Reason (Waunakee) and This Side Up (Lake Mills).
To compete, at least one member of each band must be in a school music program, and all members must be currently enrolled in a Wisconsin high school and/or WSMA member school to qualify.
Someone new to the regional high school band scene might have been surprised to see nearly half of the bands performing Friday included males and females. Watching Caila Webber play the uke as if it were an electric guitar in Ukulele Wednesday and work the stage like a young Nancy Wilson from Heart was both refreshing and reassuring.
“It’s all about the recognition and encouragement of these young kids — that’s the beauty of it,” says Dennis Graham, Launchpad’s producer, who has organized every Launchpad competition since its inception in 2004. During the past 11 years, more than 600 bands have performed at almost 60 regional and state competitions.
This year’s regional winners hope to follow in the footsteps of last year’s state champion, the Gabe Burdulis Band, featuring students from Madison West and Middleton high schools. Burdulis was named the Madison Area Music Association’s “New Artist of the Year” in 2014 and has released two albums. “That young guy is going to make it,” Graham says. “He will have a career in music.”
For more information about Launchpad, visit www.launchpadwisconsin.org.