Sunday, June 10, 2012

Review: The Rock Institute

If only the boys of American Zen had this in 1978 instead of Dave's drafty old barn in Acton.

Last night, at the jaded, hoary old age of 53, this reviewer actually saw something he'd never seen before. As the playbill above attests, my son's band, Awakening Biota played last night at a place in Marlborough, Massachusetts named The Rock Institute, splitting the bill with another band named Sonic Titan.

The Rock Institute, formerly the Strange Brew on Boston Post Road, is unique in my experience because it's a one stop type of place if you're a hard rock band tired of practicing in your dad's garage. The young owners, who took over in mid January, converted the old brewery into a clean, pleasant-looking establishment, giving the ground floor the appearance of a finished basement. Featuring two comfortable sofas out of sight of the small stage, it also offers a fog machine, laser and motion-activated strobe lights as well as a sound board for clean recordings. It even has a coffee machine.

The second floor looks positively residential, although it's not zoned for living. On your way to the tidy bathroom on the left, you pass a collection of guitars and basses and to your right before the triangular bay window overlooking Route 20 is a drum kit.

The Rock Institute offers more than just a venue for bands to play for a small admission fee ($7 at the door for last night's show if you email in a reservation). It also gives music lessons, does a little recording and rents rehearsal space if you're sick and tired of your parents telling you to keep it down. There's no bar but they have a pretty laid back BYOB policy, which is why my youngest son Jake couldn't get in (He won't be 18 until next month).

There's an alcohol-free place in North Plaistow, New Hampshire primarily for kids that gives local youth a safe place to hear music but they don't offer music lessons or recording facilities aside from ripping right off the sound board during performances. The Rock Institute is a unique business model, consolidating an impressive array of services for Assabet Valley-based bands.

Boston-based power trio Sonic Titan went on first a little after 9, featuring a giant and mad man named Shaun Anzalone on lead guitar, Steve McCaul on bass and Tom Symes on drums (whose Dad is the roadie and with whom I had a brief conversation). Beth Comery of the Providence Daily Dose, had once written of them, “Shaun Anzalone, Steve McCaul, and Tom Symes — aka Sonic Titan — covering Sabbath and just killing it! They ended their performance (which included some real swell original material) with an insane extended Led Zeppelin set. This guy totally shreds — they all do. (Can drummers shred? That doesn’t sound right.)” And they came as billed.

Awakening Biota.

Then around ten PM, they broke down their gear and Awakening Biota took the tiny stage. The drum kits were covered by what appears to be a transparent changing screen and the plexiglass shield looks as if it's there to protect the drummer from flying beer bottles (my son told me, perhaps in jest, perhaps not, that it is). But primarily, it's an acoustic shield to keep the bass drum from overpowering the rest of the instruments while maintaining the sound, another indication of the money these young people had invested in state-of-the-art equipment.

Adam Baker on backup vocals.

Drummer Ethan Gavin lost one of his drumsticks at the beginning of their set but that was the only miscue of the night as Awakening Biota did covers of the Doors, Beck, Elton John ("Tiny Dancer") and other legends while giving the crowd some of their own original music inspired by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Gabo Flores, a native of Peru, is at least as talented a guitarist as Sonic Titan's Shaun Anzalone and Dr. Phil (Phil Ward) laid down a good bass line. Ethan Gavin, pretty typical of drummers, is something of a mad man and plays the drums with gleeful, almost childlike abandon. Toward the end of their set, they invited my son Adam up on stage to sing backup vocals (the Chili Peppers' roadie Dave Rat also does this on occasion).

Except for their bassist, I first got to meet these guys at Adam's 20th birthday party at his fiancee's house in Berlin last April so when I had the chance to see these guys play live at a local venue, Mrs. JP and I jumped at it. As with Sonic Titan, they didn't disappoint. (Both bands, by the way, offer their music for free on their Facebook pages, to which I've provided links.).

All in all, the Rock Institute offers local youth a safe, constructive place to play, record, rehearse, learn and listen to music and it's a business model that I'd like to see emulated.


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