Most teenagers have to forgo college in order to seriously play in a band, but the students in the USC Thornton School of Music popular music performance major get graded on it. So while the rest of the school was buried in essays and study guides Monday night, students in professors Will Dohr and Andy Abad’s popular music performance class took to the Grammy Museum’s Sound Stage for a free concert that doubled as their midterm.
The popular music program, which was founded in fall 2009, is the first of its kind in the nation. It combines studies in songwriting, musicianship and entertainment business for students pursuing careers in the modern music landscape.
Unlike most music performance majors that spend their first few years focusing on in-class instruction, the 23 freshmen and six transfers in the popular music program are required to play a gig — it’s part of the class curriculum.
Separated into bands on the first day of class, students learn the realities of their chosen profession by spending their semester with hours rehearsing and preparing for shows.
Monday’s event featured four student bands — except for a few D-clearance cases, all are popular music majors — playing a repertoire of funk, soul and classic rock songs selected by the faculty to teach certain rhythm and ensemble skills. The showcase also marks the first publically advertised off-campus appearance by the students, as the venue for last semester’s Motown-themed final was inadequate for crowds.
The venue was nearly full when Program Director Chris Sampson’s presence onstage hushed the crowd. But silence wasn’t necessary here — in fact, Sampson encouraged the audience to get loud.
“I know you’re seated and there are programs, but this isn’t a recital,” Sampson said. “If you have to dance, dance. If you like what they’re playing, let them know.”
With that, the first group of students — a nine-piece who named their band Winston after guitarist Winston Richards — ripped into a full-bodied cover of Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination.” The band (and program’s) two saxophone players wailed behind singers Sarah Ames and Annie Dingwall whose powerful voices thundered through the room. Al Green and Aretha Franklin covers followed suit, but it was the band’s last song, James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” that was its strongest.
Moved by the intensity of her own voice, Dingwall came toward the crowd as she motioned the Monkey, the Mashed Potatoes and the Jump Back Jack along with the lyrics. The song ended with a solo from saxophonist Justin Klunk and — taking Sampson’s advice — the audience cheered him on.
The second band was an eight-piece with only a three-song set. Calling itself Lick — Sampson joked that working on band names was in next semester’s agenda — the band lacked the energy of the first, but it could have been my craving for more horns. Drummer Will Geer let his beat slip a few times during the complex pre-chorus time signatures of James Brown’s “I Got The Feelin’,” but if he had kept his poker face on the slip up could have gone unnoticed. Singer Lily Housh owned it on Led Zepplin’s “Rock and Roll,” however, and gave the headbang-worthy song a much-needed female voice.
The third band didn’t give its name, but with Peter Johnson wearing an orange-speckled, Flying V, electric violin on his shoulder, and introduction of the first female instrumentalist, Molly Miller, it was definitely the most visually interesting. It started out with Sly & the Family Stone’s first pop-infused hit, “Dance to the Music,” a brave choice as the song features four lead singers and an a capella scat before each verse. But the eight-piece pulled it off, using every instrument onstage, including voices, to recreate the original band’s multi-sonic personality.
The highlight of the entire show, however, was the band’s cover of James Brown’s “Super Bad.” A distorted violin solo, which sounded more like a jazz flute, was a unique touch to the intricate song. But without its signature horn arrangements, it was singer Lara Johnston — the cute-as-a-button daughter of Doobie Brothers’ singer Tom Johnston — who brought out the song’s essence. Her adorableness belies pipes as super bad as the song title and when she belted out “I got soul” with impressive fluctuations, she made you believe it.
The final band utilized the program’s only male vocalist, Christian Stranne, who put a masculine perspective back into James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin.’” Stranne then switched to one of the keyboards and singer-songwriter Rozzi Crane took the microphone for the last few covers. Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” paired Crane’s sultry vocals with the only acoustic-guitar sighting of the night while a performance of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” showcased a guitar solo from YouTube sensation Luke Walton.
The show ended with the last band performing Sly & The Family Stone’s “Thank You,” an appropriate song for a group of students whose major allows them to explore their musical interests freely. The chorus — Thank you for letting me be myself — sung by Crane and her bandmates could easily be interpreted as a summation of the students’ experiences during their first semester and a half in the popular music program. And when the music finally stopped, the audience’s applause said, “You’re welcome.”
While the show was a coming-out party of sorts for a program still in its infancy, the show reiterated what most already knew — these kids are talented. Although most are still only 18 years old, they are playing with extracurricular bands, recording with top industry names and are already on their own individual paths to successful careers in music. And as acceptance letters for those who will make up the second popular music performance class begin to go out in the next month, Sampson assured everyone that the future looks bright.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said.