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For Those About to Rock

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Natural Ear Music band

By the time I arrive at Maria’s Taco Express, empty parking spaces are as hard to come by as volunteers at a waterboarding seminar. The music is already blasting from the beer garden, but you can tell it’s not the usual Austin rock ‘n’ roll crowd by the preponderance of SUVs with baby seats on board, not to mention that it’s not even dark outside yet. Inside, musicians make up about a third of the standing-room-only crowd. Most of the rest are the parents and grandparents who drove the musicians to the gig.

Ranging in age from 6 to 18, the members of the 10 bands on the bill have just completed Natural Ear Music Camp’s last summer session. On day one, they were divided into groups according to age, ability and personality. Kind of like the Monkees and the pre-fab pop bands of the 1980s, except these kids play their own instruments.

And here they are after three weeks of working with their coaches, jamming, bonding with each other and learning to tell drummer jokes.

These gigs have become one of my favorite summer events. They’re a reminder that the time between baby’s first steps and her first power chord has shortened dramatically since I was a teen. You can hear it in the way the 6-year-old vocalist’s voice cracks just before the line “I’ve got whiskers on my chin” during the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man.”

At a nearby table of 11, at least three generations of one family cheer for the preteen band belting out the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Everybody’s dipping from family-size bowls of queso as they rock out. Just a couple of years ago, the band vamping through “(You Gotta) Fight for your Right (to Party!)” was doing its partying at Chuck E. Cheese.

Maybe you came of age thinking that being in a band was about scoring girls and trashing motel rooms, or that you had to actually live the blues to play them. Can we expect authentic, foot-stomping, hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck rock ‘n’ roll from a bunch of kids whose most decadent transgressions have more to do with overdosing on Red Bull and Googling porn on the family PC than shooting smack and shagging groupies?

In other words, can kids really rock? Yes, they can.

Founded by longtime Austin musician Michele Murphy in 1991, the Natural Ear program has been transforming young wannabe rockers into confident, intuitive performers for 17 years. Murphy’s philosophy is to get kids playing songs right away, teaching by showing, guitar to guitar, bashing songs out in a band format. No fussing around, no reading music notation from a book. It may sound like a no-brainer now, but Murphy was a voice in the wilderness when she started the school.”Music teachers use notation for instruction because it’s easy for them,” she says. “But rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t work that way. As soon as you write it down, it’s dead, it’s a dead language.”

“Musicians’ brains are different,” Murphy says. “Learning music produces changes in the connections between the prefrontal lobe and the cerebellum. It takes three weeks for us to make that change. You see it happening every time. During the second week of camp, the kids are nervous. They wonder if they’ll ever be able to get the songs down. Then, during the third week, it all comes together.”

Natural Ear School of Music is just off South Congress Avenue (the less swanky end) in a plain white building that used to be a car-repair garage. The school’s 12 rehearsal studios are spacious and nicely appointed. When I was a young rocker, we would’ve killed for digs like that.

On gig night, the coaches, all veteran musicians, are on hand to wrangle bands and tune guitars, but they remain offstage, like mother hens clucking over their yard bird charges from the coop. Not present tonight is John Moyer, probably the school’s biggest genuine rock star, who’s otherwise obligated as the touring bass player for the Disturbed.

It’s gratifying to see the little tricks the students pick up regarding band cool. There are no flip-flops or cutoffs on stage. There’s no noodling between songs. The shy ones who want to project confidence wear sunglasses.

It’s almost as much fun to watch the crowd as the bands. A lot of the parents look interchangeable with those you see at Little League and T-ball, but some betray a wistfulness that can only mean a sentimental Stratocaster is socked away in the closet at home. Cheering loudest are the kid sisters in sundresses and Crocs and wraparound sunglasses.

I’ve been to other Natural Ear gigs, at Emo’s and the Broken Spoke, but Maria’s strikes me as the ideal venue. The taco joint is a new version of an original that had to be torn down and relocated after Walgreens bought the property. Tacked together with salvaged materials, found art and flea-market ephemera, it feels just as homey and comfortable as its inspiration, making it an ideal pulpit for the faith-renewing properties of kid rock.

All the bands are fun to watch, and they do credit to almost every song, but if there’s one area where these players need improvement, it would be stage presence. They just don’t project rock-star cool. Not yet, anyway.

And that’s kind of refreshing. It’s a little like hearing an electric band unplugged for the first time, forgoing the histrionics, lights and fireworks. These kids haven’t had time to become jaded and ironic about the music, nor egotistical enough to try to upstage it. All they know is this: They love this stuff. It doesn’t matter how many decades it’s been since it was brand new.

Still, some of these players look like they cut their teeth on Hendrix instead of Orajel. At the June gig at Emo’s, a group called XS Baggage featured a dreadlocked 14-year-old named Sam who burned up the fretboard on a left-handed cherry Gibson SG on four sizzling rockers, including Guns N’ Roses’ “Take Me Down.” That night, Sam might have been the best guitar player in town. He slouched just right. He had the look.

The last band to take the Maria’s stage was called Texas Fireballs. Their name is a tribute to their coach, Mike Vernon, the one-man guitar army of the Austin surf band 3 Balls of Fire. The Fireballs proved to be the highlight of the evening. Their nine-song set was impressive, but the female singer’s keyboard skills made tunes like the Detroit Wheels’ “Sock it to Me, Baby” and Deep Purple’s “Hush” stand out. The band went from jalapeño-spicy to habañero-hot on Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” and a show-ending tribute to surf-guitar stylist Link Wray. As Vernon stood proudly in the wings, the guitar player not only slashed at his ax like a road-weary veteran, he actually had a confident snarl on his young face.

Is there something wrong with this picture? If your parents have to drive you to the gig and carry your guitar to the car afterward so you can tell your friends goodbye, is your rock ‘n’ roll any less authentic? If the woman at your table with the pierced nose and the tattoos isn’t your groupie but your mom, dutifully keeping your 5-year-old brother distracted during your set with a glue stick, construction paper and foil, are you really ready to strap on that Les Paul? Are you old enough to rock?

And what about the flipside of that question? When are you too old? Two days after the Natural Ear concert, my family went to see the 3-D Imax Rolling Stones concert film Shine a Light. The performances would have been awe-inspiring from a band of any age, but the huge screen makes the Stones’ faces look like outtakes from another Imax film-the one about the Grand Canyon.

One obvious person to consult might be Austin’s Pinetop Perkins, who’s still banging on the piano at the age of 95. I would ask him, but the last time I ran into him conversation was difficult, because his hearing is shot. It doesn’t appear to affect his playing at all.

And maybe what six decades or so of rock ‘n’ roll have taught us is that these are dumb questions, like whether it’s the devil’s music, whether it will make you take drugs and have indiscriminate sex. Because as soon as you draw a line and say that five is too young to rock and 99 is too old, you can bet a couple of four-year-olds will start a band with a couple of 100-year-olds, and they will rock so hard you’ll finally sell your old Beatles albums to follow them out on the road.

Don’t laugh. There may be a band like that rehearsing in a garage near you.

Jesse Sublett writes and rocks in Austin. For more on his Austin-scene bona fides, see www.jessesublett.com.