Twelve bands from around Wisconsin competed in the Launchpad finals at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday. Madison regional finalists Alton Kelly won over the crowd with its mixture of jazzy pop and smoky-nightclub blues, claiming the title and securing a spot to play at Summerfest.
The Wisconsin Foundation for School Music and Wisconsin School Music Association organize the annual competition, which got started back in 2005. Launchpad aims to support school music education programs and foster youthful talent -- all band members must be in high school or younger, and at least one member of the band must be involved in a school music program. The grand prize consists of the Les Paul Launchpad Award, along with the bow at the Big Gig and free studio recording time at E Labs Multimedia in Madison.
Winners Alton Kelly is comprised of members from Madison Memorial and Edgewood high schools, namely recent graduate and lead singer Ricci Fisher, 18, guitarist Bill Van Wagner, 17, bassist Rob Rodriguez, 17, and drummer Austin Douse, 16. The name is a nod to the psychedelic concert poster artist Alton Kelley, who died earlier this month after a long illness. This marked the band's second year as a Launchpad finalist, so the show on Saturday offered the young musicians another shot at the spotlight.
Alton Kelly started out its performance with a powerful blues spiritual, led by Fisher's pipes and accented by Van Wagner's impressive electric guitar solos. The band subsequently progressed into more upbeat, pop-y songs, but not before Van Wagner switched to an acoustic guitar halfway through the set.
Fisher explained their multi-faceted approach to music.
"It's not any specific genre," she said. "We try not to close ourselves off by saying we're such and such a genre. We play, pop, rock, blues, soul, neo-soul, acoustic, folk, a little bit of everything, except for metal."
Coming in second in the competition and named as Launchpad alternates was Trees on the Moon, a charismatic and pastel-suited group that hails from Cumberland High School in the northwestern portion of the state near Rice Lake. This band likewise flirted with the crowd, entertaining families and bopping teenage fans with its choreographed, kitschy dance moves and high energy pop rock. At the end of the set, the guitarists flipped their instruments around, revealing white paper signs on their backs offering a "Thank" and "You" to the audience.
Village Idiot took the punk/hard rock/metal prize at Launchpad, meanwhile. The band consisting of Middleton High School students won a gig at the Van's Warped Tour stop in Milwaukee this summer.
Up first, though, is the Summerfest appearance for Alton Kelly, which will be at noon on Friday, July 4 at the M&I Classic Rock Stage. The band members are not sure what they will focus on for this gig, but that they are putting together a playlist right now.
The band's next goals, explains Fisher, include taking themselves as far as possible in the local scene and getting signed. "Wherever this takes us as a band would be great," she said. "But if not, things happen. Our next goal is getting signed to a label that is interested in our musical interests as well as our career interests."