Music News

Nutcracker Sweet

A ballet rehearsal space seems an unlikely rock venue, but for more than 200 bored kids in Mesa last week, Jeanne's Dance Studio filled the bill.

The crowd turned out on May 24 for the third installment of a growing East Valley guitar pop festival known as Americopa Mantle. Eight bands, including local hard-rock standouts Before Braille, the Go Reflex, Fifteen Minutes Fast, and Bella, made use of two cramped corner stages in a claustrophobic rehearsal room at the studio. The concertgoers, looking more '80s punk than Swan Lake, leaned on wooden rehearsal rails normally reserved for dancers in tights. A few seemed discombobulated by the full mirror on the far wall. Two dozen or so decided to spend most of their time in a second room, lounging on stacks of blue and red practice mats.

The Gilbert Road strip mall studio was not the first choice for the event. But with less than two weeks to spare, plans to use the now-closed Bike Chalet down the road had fallen through. The first two Mantle events had been held in the high school gymnasium atmosphere of Centennial Hall. This time, Before Braille bassist Brandon Smith's family came to the rescue.

"It's his aunt's studio," said a smiling Kelly Reed, drummer for Before Braille. "She's totally hooking us up."

In a way, the studio backdrop helped promote Americopa Mantle's populist cause, which the participants say is to bring the best of the Valley's power-pop, punk and hard-core music to Mesa audiences in settings as intimate as possible. (The first show was billed jokingly as Mesapalooza.) Proceeds from the event, according to co-organizer Clay Rogers, guitarist for the band English Accent, will go toward the recording of a compilation featuring past and present Mantle performers.

Rogers, dressed in a black Americopa Mantle tee shirt, with a silhouetted guitarist shown strumming as the sun sets behind a series of peaks, said the hope is to host one Mantle show a month from here on out. The next one, according to the Go Reflex's Web site (, is scheduled for June 28, though the venue and lineup are unclear.

"I think it's just time," said Rogers, exhausted from the hustle of managing the stages and keeping the music moving along. "Kids are ready to go to shows on a regular basis."

Indeed, Americopa Mantle is part of what seems to be a trend toward musical critical mass, at least in Mesa, where Before Braille lead singer Dave Jensen figures boredom and competition that spill over from athletics is fueling the young kids' drive. "There really isn't much to do in this town but go to high school football games," Jensen said in the midst of running an errand. "There's sports and there's movies." Two of the bands that performed May 24, Nova Eriksun and Save Me From December, featured members still enrolled in high school, and the previous Americopa Mantle show in late February showcased one band, the Wall Street Kids, made up of sixth graders. The shows, in Jensen's estimation, fill a void and help keep life fresh for the bands -- his group just got back from a two-month East Coast tour filled with mostly empty rooms, so a good crowd may have been therapeutic.

As the profile of Americopa Mantle grows, Rogers says he believes the crowds, which so far have numbered between 250 and 425, can double in size. Rogers and peers have discussed leasing a space they can use regularly for the events, a home base the Americopa faithful can adopt. That may not happen anytime soon.

"It's like four broke guys trying to scrape together a $3,500 lease, which is going to be tough to do," Rogers says.

If all else fails, there's always Jeanne and her ballet getaway. Either way, these bands' young fans are listening, and they're making the trip.

"We went to the funeral. Tonight's the night to party!"

So said Rob Maywalt, guitarist for hip-hop rock band Cousins of the Wize, during a May 26 tribute to Chris "CPT" Pangrazi at Tempe's Big Fish Sports Pub. Pangrazi was the Cousins rapper killed in a drunken-driving accident on May 10. Bandleader Mike "Pie" Gomez has decided that Cousins can't go on without his on-mike partner, so the band's performance that night took on an exceptional energy -- if this was Cousins' last stand, they were going to pulverize every note, capture every sentiment and leave the crowd in a beer-soaked, sweat-drenched frenzy -- more beer than sweat, given the multiple sprayings the band received.

Cousins, more of a revolving collective than a band, invited past members to jam with them, as well as Pangrazi's little brother Matt. At least 18 players hit the stage at one point or another during the set, and a gaggle of women flooded the stage with them for a blazing version of the punk explosion "Rock Your Rhymes." Members also flashed a blown-up photo of Pangrazi in shades, black jacket and gray cap looking uncommonly chill; the sight inspired hysterical applause and several chants of "CPT! CPT!"

The toughest assignment of the night fell to third rapper and frequent collaborator Jah Sonora, who performed most of Pangrazi's rhymes. Pangrazi's friends and bandmates are still reeling from the loss -- Gomez refused to perform without a beer in his hand, and, visibly shaken, handed the mike to Sonora twice during the song "Not Any Longer," an anti-drug ballad that features a verse about Pangrazi's father, who also died in an alcohol-related accident. Sonora, though, stood courageous, charismatically engaging the crowd and rarely missing a cue. His face was a mixture of concentration, exultation and grief.

"I felt a lot of pain," Sonora said afterward. "Chris was the type of MC where we didn't have to worry. I could always say, At least Chris was up there.'"

Yet he and the others forged ahead, and the show as a result was electric. "We said everything is going to depend on how we act," Sonora said.

And they met that challenge.

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Christopher O'Connor