GILLETTE — Hayden Young’s first performance in a rock band was Friday night.
The incoming 12-year-old Twin Spruce Junior High School seventh grader described himself as more of an introvert when it comes to playing the guitar.
But after a week of Rock Band Camp, he’d transformed from a loner musician to part of an epic rock band.
Less than an hour before showtime, Young was a mix of excitement and nervous energy. He’d play guitar on two songs — the acoustic on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Southern rock classic “Simple Man” and electric on Nirvana’s angsty early-1990s hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The camp’s youngest performer, Young loved that he was no longer a loner.
“These guys have put more energy and love into music than I’ve had in my life,” he said. “It’s definitely opened my eyes wider and made me love music more.”
He couldn’t say enough good things about the week of camp that had ended just hours before with dress rehearsals for the show.
“Rehearsal was a blast,” Young said. “Probably one of the most fun moments of my life. And I can’t even imagine how fun it’s going to be in front of a crowd, so I’m extremely excited.”
A group of strangers came together to play, and after a week of eight-plus-hour days in whatever rehearsal in spaces around Campbell County High School, they were about to take the stage for nearly 90 minutes to play a 15-song set of disparate titles with a common denominator: They all rock when played at volume.
Charlotte Marasco, a 17-year-old rising senior at CCHS, would pluck the bass guitar for four of the songs in the set, and her playing during the week had caught the attention of many of her fellow Rock Band Campers.
They all knew Marasco’s musical resume: It was her first year on the instrument. She’d come from a percussion background, playing drums in jazz ensembles at school. What started as a joke response to an expressed need for another bassist would conclude with her first rock band performance for a live audience on an instrument she still didn’t feel completely comfortable with.
Despite those odds, she’s a game-day player and was ready to go when the countdown reached about a half hour until showtime. Marasco thought for a minute what she was most looking forward to, and her response surprised even herself.
“Playing in front of people,” she said. “Which is weird for me to say, because I’m normally — I don’t want to play in front of people because of, like, stage fright, and it’s (now) like, ‘I actually want to play in front of people.’”
The camp’s director, Steve Oakley, addressed the rockers before the show for some last-minute reminders, some calming words and some admonitions to rock out but not get out of control. Then he turned the floor over to some of the Rock Band Camp veterans who were about to play their final gig as participants in the program.
Zakk Ross, an 18-year-old guitarist and huge fan of rock guitar legend Eddie Van Halen, was the final camper to speak to his fellow bandmates. He won’t be back after being a regular at Rock Band Camp for a number of years. He would age out after this performance having graduated from CCHS a month ago.
Or had he?
That was the joke Ross leaned into before his speech to the others. A fellow camper said he didn’t technically graduate.
People didn’t know how to respond: “Was this serious?” they all seemed to wonder.
Nervous laughter sputtered from the group.
“Yeah, well, I don’t have my diploma anymore,” Ross said.
“He burned his diploma,” chimed in his friend, Chance Robinson, another 18-year-old CCHS graduate in his last Rock Band Camp.
Slack jaws and wide eyes greeted this new information.
“That is the most metal thing ever!” exclaimed Josh Knutson, another camper who would be singing and playing drums in the show.
When Ross finally got to his message, it was incredibly earnest, and his love of music bled through every word.
“If there’s a period in your life where you’re not having fun playing music, just make sure it’s like a habit where you at least pick up and keep it with you,” Ross told his bandmates. “That happened to me during COVID and stuff, so I’m really happy to be playing again because I freaking love it, and I’m just having lots of fun.”
A few minutes later, Oakley updated his performers.
“We now have 15 minutes before we melt the faces off of everyone in that auditorium,” he said.
Final preparations were underway. The teens finished drawing on each other with black markers, because rock stars have tattoos. Everybody knows that. Final swigs from 16-ounce cans of what else but Rockstar energy drinks.
It was showtime.
The show began much more courteously than a lot of rock performances in the sense that it began promptly at its appointed starting time. But that was probably the only difference in the teens’ performance and that of any rock band. To say the kids showed up to rock would be an understatement, and those who’d gathered in the CCHS auditorium were treated to uncanny showmanship and amp dials turned all the way up to 11.
On Tuesday, Josh Simon took a break from practicing and described how different things were for him in his fourth year of camp.
“This is the first year I ever drummed for the camp,” Simon said. “In other camps, I was just a vocalist because I wasn’t confident enough to play with a live band until this year.”
A self-taught drummer, Simon said he no longer practiced much on his drum set at home because he lives in a smaller house and more congested neighborhood. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t practice for the show in the hours between camp sessions last week.
“A lot of the time I kind of just practice on this wooden stool that I have in my room with my records and stuff,” Simon said. “It’s not as good as an actual set, but you know, it gets the job done because I practiced on that stool for a lot of the songs that are happening in here.
“When it comes to Rock Band Camp, you can’t really improv your way through the song. I kind of have to listen to the song and think musically about what is happening.”
And so he did Friday night. For the second song of the set, “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus, Simon took the stool at the drum set on a riser in the center of the stage and crashed the snare, bass, toms and high-hat as if they were that stool in his bedroom.
The stage presence, which Oakley had said earlier in the week was the thing that had to be coaxed out of the teens, was on full display. Some things can be taught, like how to finger a particular chord or how to keep time or how to breathe to sustain a particular note while singing.
But stage presence — that ineffable “it” factor some people just have and others clearly do not — can’t be taught.
The remarkable thing about the numerous performers in the Rock Band Camp show was they all had it. The singers didn’t just sing, they performed.
Simon, while on lead vocals for “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers, paused at one point to extend the mic above the heads of the crowd gathered at the front of the stage and allow them to finish a lyric for him.
Knutson, while singing the famously garbled words of Nirvana’s signature classic hit, climbed up on the platform where the drums sat and during an extended run by the drummer, Knutson dramatically splashed a cymbal with his hand — because that’s just something a rocker frontman would do.
The crowd loved it.
“All I can say is I haven’t felt this good since the ’90s, and I wasn’t born until 2003,” said Dylan Coleman, a recent graduate from Thunder Basin High School. “I mean, that was some incredible stuff. It felt like a real rock concert. My throat hurts, I’ve got a headache, all the same symptoms.”
There were leaps from the stage. There were trips into the crowd to rock with the fans. There were shirts thrown into the crowd. There were extended drum and guitar solos. There were curse words in songs, which felt extra subversive because they were all teens singing to a crowd that most assuredly contained their parents. There was head banging. There were eclectic outfits. There were screams and posing.
It seemed to come naturally, and why not? That’s just what rock stars do.