Fourteen, 17 and 19 may seem young, but these are the ages at which members of the Jam, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones formed the most iconic bands in rock 'n' roll history.
And how about Waukesha, West Allis and Milwaukee - just Wisconsin bergs? More like the birthplaces of music legends Les Paul, Liberace and Al Jarreau.
Clearly, musical aptitude has no age requirement or designated zip code. No one knows this better than Dennis Graham, father of the state's largest high school battle of the bands, Launchpad.
"Launchpad celebrates the reach of music education by recognizing that there are young high school students that have a thirst for music," says Graham, 56, in a voice aged by shouting at concerts and amplified by the teenage drummer still lingering inside. "I created Launchpad to provide these young musicians a forum to showcase their talent."
In April 2004, Graham was approached by the Wisconsin Foundation for School Music, the fund-raising and promotional arm of the Wisconsin School Music Assocation, to help raise awareness of their mission and bolster music education programs affected by budget cuts. Launchpad does both, by providing teenage musicians with an artistic outlet at a time when many school music programs cannot. Since the initial 2005 competition, over 250 bands have applied to compete, with roughly 200 of those selected to move on to the competitive rounds. Nineteen major sponsors, including Charter Communications and Sony, support the growing competition.
This year, 60 selected bands compete at four regional competitions through the state. On June 21, three winners from each will duke it out at the final showdown on the UW's Wisconsin Union Theater stage in an effort to seize the grand prize: the Les Paul Launchpad Award, studio time at Madison's E-Labs Multimedia studio plus a spot on the Summerfest concert bill. The Vans Warped Tour even awards a slot on their Milwaukee bill to a second winner.
Last year, Beloit's Christian rock outfit Alakrity took home the loot, but bassist Brad LeBaron believes there is more than just bling in the prize bag: "Winning has given us the confidence to move forward with [music] as our career. With our recording time at E-Labs, we finished vocals on our EP, You Are Here, which has given us a product to demonstrate what our band has to offer."
Since taking home its medal, Alakrity has played locally and nationally, most recently at the March for Life in Washington, D.C.
Madison-based jazz-pop-blues band Alton Kelly has its sights set on triumphing at this year's Launchpad event. Alton Kelly is a quartet of Edgewood and Madison Memorial High School students; the group practices every Monday and Wednesday and plays at area cafes and events like Brat Fest.
"There are always many things you would change about your performance," says guitarist Bill Van Wagner, 17, at a basement rehearsal. He hopes lessons the band learned through participating in last year's Lauchpad contest will pay off this time around. "We think we almost overprepared for the finals and lost the feeling and energy of the songs." This year, the band has improved "and expanded our sound and stage presence."
Stoughton High School's auditorium is packed with students and parents alike for the April 11 Launchpad Madison Regional Competition. Backstage, bands tune guitars and test amps, pacing back and forth waiting for their turn to impress judges Rick Tvedt, Mark Croft and Donny Neufuss.
Each band receives 25 minutes to set up instruments and perform three original and/or cover songs. The six-hour competition, hosted by WJJO FM/The Lake's Kurt Baron, showcases talent from Cambridge to Prairie du Chien that never fails to entertain and impress.
Melodic Hex of Janesville Parker High School wow with beastly vocals and searing guitar solos on renditions of Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and Rush's instrumental "YYZ," plus their own "Talkbox Blues."
Fans in Pillbox 49 T-shirts line up across the front of the stage and head-bang as the Orfordville Parkview High School crew play their tight, hook-laden hard-rock.
Between sets, Graham gives mini-history lessons about bands who triumphed in their youth, like the Kinks. As he speaks, guys in dark T-shirts and ripped jeans lean forward, investigating the guitars and amps being set up by hardcore band Final Motive. Perfumed girls seated next to them giggle and wave to members of folksy Under the Stars, who linger in the wings.
Most of the night is devoted to a boys' club of hard-rock/post-grunge with smatterings of classic rock, speed metal and punk. And then it's time for Alton Kelly to show the crowd some soul.
With a tight set, intimate dialogue with the crowd and warm interaction with one another, Alton Kelly is a balmy breeze in a thunderstorm of rock. Seventeen-year-old Ricci Fisher's croon blends effortlessly with Van Wagner's laid-back guitar and backing vocals during "Light Rain." Bassist Rob Rodriguez, 17, and drummer Austin Douse, 16, keep the mood smooth and mellow.
After their set and routine briefing with one of the judges on the pros and cons of their performance, the band members reconvene with parents and friends, hugging one another and beaming with smiles of elation.
At 10 p.m., Baron announces the finalists. There are high-fives in the audience as Baron lists Alton Kelly, Pillbox 49 and Village Idiot - a fabulously versatile rock outfit from Milton High School whose lead singer, Josh Napert, 18, kept playing even after injuring his knee onstage. Cambridge and Deerfield High School band Continental Sheep will act as the alternate, in the event that one of the others cannot compete at the finals in June.
Despite some disappointed faces in the corridors of Stoughton High School, the overall positive feeling extends well into the parking lot. Kids are discussing what they enjoyed in other bands and how they could improve their own performance - for there is always next year.
Competitors at the semi-final level have doubled since 2005, and Graham hopes to pump up the volume even more. "Currently Launchpad bands are predominantly male, but it's my goal to see a greater representation of female, Hispanic and black high school students. I also want to see new musical genres; we've not yet had a country, world beat or urban rhythm group become involved, and I'm working with radio stations around the state to cultivate these new genres."
Currently, at least one band member must be enrolled in a school music program, something freshman guitarist/singer Derek Reynolds' online high school, iQ Academy Wisconsin, does not offer. Luckily his bandmates, freshmen Chris DiVernado and Tony Williams, are enrolled in jazz band at Middleton High School, so their power-pop rock band Level 10 could take part in the competition.
Reynolds, who takes private guitar lessons, supports erasing the rule: "I think there would be more people in my situation that could participate."
Graham agrees, especially in light of recent budget cuts: "The reason for this rule was to keep a direct connection between the school music teacher and Launchpad. But it is limiting and will be revised."
The addition of special guest clinicians, drummer Ndugu Chancler and bassist Nathan East, at the final showcase this June proves Launchpad continues to grow stronger with practice - just like the teenage bands from across Wisconsin that compete each year.
Showtimes and more information
Wisconsin Foundation for School Music