Teen Steam

Her oldest brother, Justin, is the heartthrob of the group. With the perfectly tousled, blond-streaked hair, the model's eyes and the fashionably pierced earlobes, he's the one in the foreground of all the photo shoots. The principal songwriter, lead singer and guitarist of the band whose unfortunately pun-intended name appropriates his own, 19-year-old Justin Tosco is also the trio's creative leader, the one with all the relationship experience necessary to write great pop songs.

Her middle brother, Nick, is the jock of the group. The promising high school basketball star who gave up hoops for a drum kit, Nick, 17, is the comedian, the cutup. The guy's guy of the band. But 16-year-old Hannah Tosco is the hook, the refreshingly original element of the three-sibling pop-rock band that really sets it apart. Were she yet another brother, justincase could easily be dismissed as a new-millennium Hanson: three hip-looking Middle American teenagers making their own catchy suburban garage rock.

But Hannah Tosco, with her red-dashed Kelly Osbourne hair and low-flung bass guitar, brings that crucial 2000s motif to the mix -- what David Lee Roth calls the "little gal" element. She's the Michelle Branch of the group, the Avril Lavigne, the Vanessa Carlton. But on bass. How cool is that?



Mesa Amphitheatre, 251 North Center.

Scheduled to open for Michelle Branch on Tuesday, October 1. Showtime is 7 p.m. Call 480-644-2560.

Actually, even cooler than you might think. Without Hannah, justincase could have become something much worse than the new Hanson. As it was originally configured, justincase was poised to become a paternally led Partridge Family for the new millennium.

"Before I joined, my dad was playing bass," winces Hannah during a break on a radio promo stop in L.A. "And Justin and Nick were pleading me to join. They were like, Hannah, this is so not cool! We can't have our dad playing bass!'"

Hannah's dad, John Tosco, was actually the founding force behind justincase. A staple on the Charlotte, North Carolina, music scene for nearly two decades, the siblings' dad is widely known for his Tosco Music Parties, monthly music showcases that bring together everyone from legendary bluesmen and '60s-era folkies to aspiring 10-year-old future Britneys.

"Both of my parents are musicians," Hannah says. "So there were always instruments around the house. I tried a bunch of different instruments, picking them up and just trying them out for a little bit. I played piano for a while, and did a little keyboards with Justin and Nick in the beginning. But when they decided they needed a bass player, I started playing that."

Hannah admits her instrument is not the most wieldy for a young girl (she began playing bass at age 12). "It is a big instrument, and it would obviously help to have bigger hands and longer arms." But she's inspired by the letters she's received from other young girls who've taken up weird instruments based on her example.

"There have been girls who've sent me e-mails and letters saying, I'm 14, I just bought a bass, and I want to play like you,'" she says. "That's really awesome to hear about."

Not coincidentally, justincase was discovered by Michelle Branch, the hot young female singer-songwriter whose runaway success has inspired girls all over the globe to pick up instruments and start making their own music.

"I met them at a music showcase in Las Vegas where we were both booked to play," says Branch, calling from her tour bus en route to a concert in Columbia, Missouri, where she'll open for Sheryl Crow. "And I immediately connected with them. I guess what appealed to me most about the group was that they were my age, but they wrote music that sounded more seasoned than the average teen could write."

Michelle and the Tosco teens became fast friends, and continued to stay in touch even as Branch was signed to Madonna's Maverick Records and her career began to skyrocket. "They would always send me their new songs, and I decided that when I finally got in a position where I could help these guys out, I'd do it."

As strange as it sounds for a group so young, the brother-and-sister act was already beginning to feel its time for a shot at rock 'n' roll stardom was running out. Having played music practically from the time they each could walk -- and having worked seriously for the past four years trying to attract the ears of the record labels -- Justin, Nick and Hannah were about ready to give up their rock dreams and settle for a normal post-high school life of cracking books and flipping burgers.

"They were tired of the waiting and really felt it was time to give it one last shot," Branch recalls. "Justin had a scholarship to college, and they had to figure out what their next step was going to be. So I said, Come out to L.A., we'll set up a showcase, and I'll bring everybody down that I know who can possibly help.' And I brought everybody from my publishers and producers to the label's management and legal people."

Hannah remembers it as one of the most stressful nights of her young life. "We were playing at the Viper Room," she says, "but because we were all under 21, we weren't allowed to stay in the club. As soon as we got done playing, we had to get out of there. So we were all standing out on the sidewalk while all the people at Maverick were talking inside."

The siblings wound up going home without any definite commitment and waiting another three months before Maverick offered a record contract. But now, finally, everything's coming together -- and fast. With the video for the group's debut single "Don't Cry for Us" already rising on MTV's TRL countdown (the clip has the siblings playing on a Brady Bunch-like staircase) and an album scheduled to drop October 29, the future looks bright for the young pop-rockers.

"But even if our CD flops," Hannah insists, "we're just happy to know we can do this. Even if we're back in Charlotte in a year, just playing all over town, it'll be cool."

First thing, though, she'd at least like to meet her boss. "We haven't met Madonna yet, although she knows about us and keeps tabs on what we're doing," says Hannah. "Maybe after we sell a few CDs!"

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