by Mike Corrigan

It's Year Five for the annual Rock for Tots holiday event at the Met Theater, and you can bet that it won't be the last as long as Vertigo Bliss is still alive and kicking it. Since the first Rock for Tots in 2000, Vertigo Bliss front man Dave Kotlan has combined local live original rock with the spirit of giving for a holiday concert that benefits the Toys for Tots foundation. On Friday night, they'll make that magic happen once again.

Spokane's Rock for Tots event was founded by Kotlan and his buddies in Spokane's alternative rock band, Vertigo Bliss, as a way for local musicians to help out the Toys for Tots Foundation. All of the toy donations and proceeds taken in from the show go directly to area children through the Toys for Tots program, one of the largest Christmas philanthropies in the country. Since its inception in 1947, Toys for Tots has distributed more than 300 million toys to more than 150 million needy kids throughout America. Previous years' Rock for Tots events have been extremely successful, with both area kids and local rock fans coming out the big winners. Thousands of toys have been collected, and concertgoers have been treated to a big dose of quality local talent for a very affordable price. This year promises to provide the same impressive level of entertainment for even less green: Tickets ($6 in advance, $8 at the door) are actually a couple bucks less than they were in 2003.

Aside from helping out a deserving charity, the concert is also a way for locals to check into some of the hottest bands on the Spokane scene. Past Rock for Tots events have featured such high-scoring bands as 10 Minutes Down, Paradox, Illusion 33, Kite and Lucid. This year, in addition to Rock for Tots stalwarts Vertigo Bliss, Spokane bands Sittser and Mylestone will lend their talents to the holiday anti-bummer squad.

Vertigo Bliss -- Kotlan (guitar/vocals), Denny Holler (bass) and Steve Hurlburt (drums/vocals) -- trades in hook-filled, radio-ready alternative rock characterized by big, ringing guitars, anthemic arrangements and a thundering bottom end. Lyrically, the band exhibits a well-developed pop instinct and an all-important sense of humor. For the last two years, the group has been representing the Inland Northwest in Budweiser's "True Music Live" program and recently recorded a couple of songs for the upcoming film about WSU football called Wheat Field Legends. The band is also currently touring the Northwest in support of its second album, Phonophobic.

Whitworth College students Tyler Kumakura and Travis Stoicis formed the nucleus of the band Sittser in the fall of 2000. Encouraged by the kudos they received from their fellow dormitory residents, they soon drew bassist Charlie Shepherd and drummer Kyle Gilliam into their upbeat, acoustically driven alt-rock sound sphere. They now have three studio albums to their credit -- Dawn (2001), Road to Nowhere (2002) and Losing My Fear of Heights (2004). Sittser is making some major inroads into the music world outside Spokane as well. Kazaa users, for instance, have thus far downloaded the band's songs a whopping 250,000 times.

The young lads in Mylestone have also come quite far in very short order. In only a couple years since forming, the five-piece -- vocalist Patrick O'Neill, lead guitarist Curran Long, bassist Cole Tanner, drummer Riley Long and new rhythm guitarist Aaron McConkey -- have managed to write, record and release an album (Mylestone, Out of the Basement), score a big win at Spokane's 2004 BOBfest competition and earn the top regional spot in the national "Got Milk/MTV Shake Stuff Up" battle of the bands tour in June. But probably the band's biggest rush came when they were invited to open for Alter Bridge, Crossfade and Submersed at the Big Easy's recent Halloween bash.

So get off your rears and do your part for the tots. And let these local up-and-coming bands handle the rock.

Emotional Rescue

Strictly speaking, the Orphan Project plays punk rock at its most elemental -- that is, loud, fast, exciting and emotionally honest music translated directly from the gut with bass, guitar and drums. Yet one listen to the Seattle band's debut EP, Am I Here To Shoot Balls or To Clear the Table? (Double Dos), reveals an urgency and depth that is rarely found in today's "punk rock as commodity" music industry. How do these songs, and others, come across live? Find out this Saturday night when the Orphan Project hits Spokane for a gig at the Blue Spark along with their label mates, indie-pop band the Glasses.

Guitarist Jeremy Washington (who goes by his initials J.E.W. -- his friends call him "Jew") and drummer Joe Steenburgh first started the Orphan Project in 1999 in Modesto, Calif.

"I was still in high school when we first got together and did some recording," says Steenburgh. "About the middle of 2002, we were like, 'Let's get out of this Central Valley.' And so we headed up to Seattle, just the two of us. We met Raleigh [Heitzman] not too long after that."

The four-song Am I Here To Shoot Balls was recorded by the trio -- Washington, Steenburgh and Heitzman on bass -- early this year. Washington and Steenburgh did most of the writing, and all three members supplied vocals. Those vocals are mixed up front and are carried along on a steady melodic foundation from which harmonies frequently surface. The lead track, "Meaning Is Relative," is a knockout. The song's dynamic arrangement utilizes a staggered rhythmic pattern, feedback, overlapping vocals and over-amped guitars to convey desperation and impending doom: "Expectations can kill / and we know they will." It's a breathtaking example of what can occur when the band brings all of the musical weapons in its arsenal to bear on a single composition.

And the Orphan Project isn't shy about cutting loose with raw emotionalism. It's what draws the listener in. And it's what hooked Steenburgh and Washington in the first place.

"I remember listening to bands that I thought were emo when I was in the eighth and ninth grade," explains Steenburgh. "That's really where we draw a lot of our inspiration from, from first-wave emo before it became dorky, when it was still an underground genre. Bands like Mineral and Jets to Brazil, Planes Mistaken for Stars."

Good punk rock has always contained a vibrant emotional component. But these days, because of its commercialization and overuse, the term "emo" has been reduced to something of an insult.

"God, it really is," agrees Steenburgh. "It's such a negative term now. I think all these bands that started classifying themselves as emo to make a buck just kind of wrecked the genre."

Saturday night's show at the Blue Spark will be a Double Dos showcase, one featuring the two bands -- the Orphan Project and the Glasses -- that currently make up the fledgling label's roster. The Orphan Project's first full-length album for Double Dos is currently in the pre-production phase (the band enters the studio in February). Steenburgh says they are shooting for a release in the early summer of 2005.

For all of its recent successes and steadily expanding fan base, one problem is currently dogging the Orphan Project -- that is, the evaporation of its previously stable lineup. In November, Heitzman announced that he would soon be leaving the band to "pursue other interests."

Yow. Talk about a punch in the solar plexus.

"Yeah," says Steenburgh. "This is actually going to be Raleigh's last show with us. It's bad timing but kind of good timing in a way. He's ready to move on, so it's better now than later, I guess."

And the parting has been amicable. Heitzman will not only finish out the rest of the band's scheduled live dates for 2004 but will also be lending his skills to the Orphan Project's new batch of studio recordings. But the search is definitely on for a replacement.

"We have a few prospects. Actually, it's weird -- we have three different guys named Chris trying out. The community we run with here in Seattle is pretty tight-knit, so everybody knows somebody who plays an instrument."

Yet Steenburgh admits that finding someone who is dedicated enough to stick with a band at this level -- where day jobs are still a necessity and tangible rewards can be few -- will be no easy task.

"The commitment level is really hard to find, especially among musicians, because, you know," he laughs, "we're all so flaky. But for Jew and I, this is just what we do. It goes without saying that these days, we practice. It's like going to church, basically. It's just the way things are and nothing other than death will hinder us. We've been doing it so long, it's kind of a habit."

Publication date: 12/16/04

MosCo Benefit Auction @ Moscow Contemporary

Saturdays, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and Tuesdays-Fridays, 12-5 p.m. Continues through Feb. 4
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