Budding rock stars hone their music at Spokane Valley's Rock Club

Band-in-training First Issue tackle Led Zeppelin as part of their Rock Club lessons. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Band-in-training First Issue tackle Led Zeppelin as part of their Rock Club lessons.

Diving into their jam session in a small practice space sandwiched between the living room and garage of a Spokane Valley home, four members of First Issue put on their headphones and start the ba-na-nuh-nuh-nuh-jug-jigga-jug-jigga-jug intro to Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love."

Ray Tozzi, 18, rocks the bass riff while looking across to 16-year-old Garrett Santoro, strumming a guitar. Between them, Nolan Watts, 17, holds the rhythm steady on drums.

Holding a power stance in the corner, mic in hand and elbow popped out to the side, 17-year-old singer Dylan Highwood belts out the first words — "You need cooling, baby I'm not fooling" — in his best imitation of Robert Plant. But after a few lines of the chorus, he starts singing off mic where the others can't hear him through their headphones, and music teacher Sean Burgett asks the band to pause.

"Even if you're not sure you can hit those notes, just go for it," Burgett tells Highwood. "If you're the singer and you're not sure, we're probably not sure, either. Just be confident."

It's early September and the band is gearing up for a Battle of the Bands where they'll face off against more than a dozen other groups from Burgett's Rock Club music program at the Pin in downtown Spokane.

Through the School of Rock-style Rock Club, formed in 2014, Burgett offers music lessons with a focus on weekly practices that place students into a group setting. For $125 a month, the bands practice covers and come up with original songs, participating in seasonal showcases.

"The goal for me from the very beginning of this is that whoever's in the band — say if it's four kids — I try to give them all a song pick," Burgett says. "I try to give them the steering wheel, but I'm student-driving with my foot on the brake the whole time. It takes a lot of coaching. We're always trying to get to where we can do whatever they want to do."

Most days you'll find three or four bands filtering in and out of the practice space at Burgett's home. Occasionally, students pop in the back door to run downstairs for a private lesson with fellow teacher Emily Westman, or Burgett's wife and two young sons might run through to get to the car.

The same afternoon, members of another band, Point Blank, work through their covers of "Renegade" by Styx and Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." Burgett keeps the students on track as he coaches them about bringing flair on stage for the showcase.

Rock Club music program teacher and founder Sean Burgett. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Rock Club music program teacher and founder Sean Burgett.

"Give us a little Freddie [Mercury] flourish to know we're at the end," he tells 12-year-old singer Bella Dice before turning to 17-year old Drake Beale on drums and saying, "If you ever think, 'Should I maybe do the crash right now?' Yes. The answer is yes."

After practice, bassist Jillian Persicke, 14, hangs on the lawn for a minute as 13-year-old guitarist Matt Fischer grabs his bike and Beale comes out with his drumsticks.

"I like the diversity of people that can be in your bands," Persicke says, noting this iteration of Point Blank, which also includes 16-year-old guitarist Kaylee Martin, has members in middle and high school. Burgett moves members around until they find a good fit.

"I've been in Rock Club for seven years," Beale says. "I originally did private lessons and then went into bands, and I've probably been in six or seven bands in that time."

First Issue bassist Tozzi says he joined Rock Club after seeing a poster at Guitar Center, and he appreciates practicing on the high-quality equipment.

Highwood, who's been singing in Rock Club for five or six years, explains that First Issue formed just a few weeks before the Battle.

"I'm excited for us to just play all together and excited to start gigging with this band," he says.

"It's weird to see it all come together," guitarist Santoro adds. "Like a month ago, it was me and Dylan in my basement."

By the time the Battle of the Bands rolls around, the groups are all ready and anxious to get on stage as the Pin fills up with their parents, siblings and other family members.

Musicians ranging from 10-18 take their turn commanding the stage and covering artists like Green Day and Joan Jett, as well as performing originals. Their band names are goofy and creative, from Gnarwhal to Quantum Understandium, "the band formerly known as Brutal Noodle." Some rock light-up shoes and colorful hair, while others wear ripped denim and punk vests outfitted with buttons and patches.

As First Issue takes the stage, it's clear their practice has paid off: Highwood belts out the lyrics throughout their Led Zeppelin cover, and Santoro plays a lengthy guitar solo on their original song. Later on, Point Blank starts their set with "Heartbreak Hotel" before moving through their other covers and ending with their original song, "Moving On," which singer Dice wrote the lyrics for with her sister.

After four hours of music, the judges are ready to announce the winners, who take home everything from songwriting and performance workshops to instrument accessories.

The members of Point Blank and First Issue stand near the front of the room with the other bands, hoping to hear their name called. Three other bands win prizes and then it's time for first place, the chance to record a single at Kaotic Studios.

"Please give it up for Violet Ice!" a judge announces. The band members look at each other and shrug, continuing their conversations before asking Burgett for their final feedback from the judges.

While they didn't win one of the top spots, just days later, Point Blank and First Issue are already back at it, snacking on chips and cookies bought with Battle proceeds and honing the same songs with their eyes set on the next showcase.

"Our next show is Oct. 12 at 5 pm. This is our farewell at the Bartlett," Burgett says. "We're really sad to see that closing. ... It's going to be bittersweet, but it'll be an adventure to venture out to new venues." ♦

Rock Club Showcase • Sat, Oct. 12 at 5 pm • $5 • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • rockclubmusic.com

Spokatopia @ Camp Sekani

Sat., Sept. 18, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...