Recently, my nephew Torin celebrated his fourth birthday. My brother, a sound engineer, recruited a local band, New York Homecoming, to learn a couple of children's songs and play in his yard at the Saturday afternoon party. Shortly after the band's 3 p.m. sound check, a Tempe cop showed up to hand down a warning about the noise level; a neighbor had called the police and complained. My brother took Torin, who sports a blond, spiky Mohawk, over to the offended neighbor's house and tried to politely explain that the band would be finished by 7 p.m. and was playing children's songs.
"Sounded like rock 'n' roll to me," the guy snorted.
"It's children's rock 'n' roll," my brother replied.
Death Drives Theory
Neckbeard's Soda Bar in Tempe
Scheduled to perform on Thursday, December 1
"Whatever," the guy shot back.
The band ended up playing its set without another visit from the Man, but it got me thinking about "children's rock 'n' roll." Not for 4-year-olds, but the underage scene in general. It struck me that kids have a purer appreciation of music than those of us prone to overindulging and socializing at concerts.
A couple weeks later, a 12-year-old I know was playing his first show with a new band at Neckbeard's Soda Bar in Tempe, and I decided to check out the gig. Do you know where your tweens are on any given Friday? If not, I have a pretty good guess.
At 7:30 p.m., the Mohave Middle School students in Death Drives Theory -- 12-year-olds Spencer Ramirez (my friend's son) on guitar and vocals, guitarist Justin Gamboa, vocalist/screamer Mackenzie Steill, bassist Travis Anderson, and 13-year-old drummer Tyler Gibbins -- were onstage while a gaggle of similarly aged (and similarly height-challenged) tweens were mobbed up against the stage.
There were a few parents milling around -- mostly moms -- but it's clear that many felt comfortable dropping their kids off. When Death Drives Theory launched into its first song, with Mack's screams belying his still high-pitched speaking voice, the kids were clapping their hands in the air. The band's songs oscillated between pretty and heavy, and for a tween outfit playing its first gig, I was impressed by the boys' skills.
The boys in the band sported the standard screamo uniform -- their bangs clinging to the sides of their faces, girls' pants clinging to their skinny legs, and tight tee shirts. It's a far cry from anything I experienced as a 12- or 13-year-old. These are some lucky kids -- there's not only Neckbeard's available to them, but other non-alcoholic venues like Modified Arts and the PHiX -- and hopefully they're the future of the music scene here in the 'Nix.
Sue Faist, Spencer's mom, says she's been letting him go to shows by himself -- primarily at Neckbeard's -- for about the past year, though only after she'd patiently attended eight or nine shows with him. "I took one for the team," she says, laughing. "Neckbeard's is really cool because the crowd is super young. Until [Spencer] really screws up, I'm letting him try to do his own thing. Hopefully it doesn't blow up in my face."
The kids at Neckbeard's, with their parents or not, are watched over by co-owner Jake Slider -- a parent himself -- and his staff. There's no reentry once the kids are in there, and Slider's committed to providing a safe environment for underagers to enjoy bands.
"There's always been a younger scene," he says. "But when the Nile [Theater, in Mesa] closed, there was no place for the kids to go. Nobody was even touching this anymore."
After a stint at the Clubhouse Music Venue in Tempe, Slider decided to launch Neckbeard's as a youth-oriented venue and fill the void he saw. "The kids get more into it," he explains. "They go to see their friends rock-star-dreaming. They show support like crazy -- it's ridiculous." It's not all 12-year-olds, for sure, but Slider estimates that up to 80 percent of the bands he books have at least one member still in high school.
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Parents seem to trust Neckbeard's as a safe venue, and Slider's willing to do whatever he can to assuage any fears they've got. "'Go walk around,' I'll tell them. 'Check the place out. If there's anything you don't like, let me know.' When they pick the kids up, they see how much fun they're having, and are usually like, 'Thank you so much.'"
Faist's son was raised around live music (Spencer's father is Vince Ramirez, drummer for Flathead), and she concedes that her 12-year-old is a unique case. "I'm sure there's some parents that just don't get it, that hate it," she tells me. "It's not their thing."
Local promoter Tyler King occasionally brings youth-oriented bands like 25 to Life and My Only Hope to Neckbeard's, and has worked security there. He agrees that the kids are more enthusiastic about the local music scene than the over-agers. "Going to a bar show, as soon as you're bored, you can easily turn the band off by turning around, ordering a Jack and Coke, talking to your buddies, trying to pick up some chick. At an all-ages show, with no bar, no ins and outs, you have a forced audience, and they find it easier to get into the bands because there's less things to preoccupy them."
Plus, King adds, "[The kids] aren't the cool kids at school. [At Neckbeard's] they become the cool kids. Suddenly it gives them a self-worth and a reason to go out and really create their own identities. Any parent's going to be happy with that."