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'SCV Rock Star' wrap: Renfue, Strat, Seely win top honors

Score studio and rehearsal time, video and photo sessions, press coverage

Posted: September 24, 2008 6:05 p.m.
Updated: November 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Renfue took first place in the Professional division at the SCV Rock Star Night concert finale Friday, Sept. 19 at the Santa Clarita Sports Complex.

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Modern rock sextet Renfue won first place, introspective rock trio un:armed picked up second, and red-hot rock singer Jessie Seely earned third in the Professional division by a panel of five expert judges at The-Signal.com's and Higher Level Productions' "SCV Rock Star Night" concert finale last Friday.

The judges also named singer/songwriters Johnny Strat and Aaron Wong and The FBI Band first, second and third, respectively, in the Amateur division at the event, which took place at the Santa Clarita Sports Complex's Activities Center.

"We're really excited," said Renfue guitarist Rob Jones. "We're happy we won, and want to thank everyone who came out and helped us, and The-Signal.com, Higher Level and all the sponsors -- it's really great."

"I am so stoked we took first," said Amateur winner Strat, who performed the first part of his set with Colin Gilliard (aka "Charlie Black," backing vocals, rap) and Tommy Claffey (percussion) before finishing up solo on acoustic guitar.

"I've been waiting to take my music career to the next level, and this has given me the chance to do just that," he said. "I thought the whole SCV Rock Star experience was a great opportunity, and a good eye opener for the Santa Clarita Valley."

The judges who joined the artists and bands, fans, friends and family for the all-ages showcase, produced by Higher Level, were unanimous in their choices in both categories.

For Best Video, however, the judges split 3-2, choosing "Pretty" by Seely, who produced the video as a class project at College of the Canyons. The runner-up was un:armed's "This Nightmare."

"I had my sights set on winning the video category, and was so thrilled I did!" Seely said. "The bands that won were awesome, the judges so supportive, and the sponsors rocked, too! All and all it was a very cool night for all us aspiring SCV musicians -- I had a blast!"

The fast-paced SCV Rock Star show, alternating between two stages, included opening performances by three special guest groups who were SCV Rock Star entrants who scored highly but didn't quite make the finals.

Rock band Undefined Nation and rock/reggae group Kounterfeit Change opened the show, and a set by North of Paradise Leather was sandwiched between the Amateur division and the Professional Division.

The duo kept the audience entertained with song parodies while the judges were sequestered backstage choosing the Amateur winners.

The contest
Santa Clarita Valley-based artists and bands entered the SCV Rock Star competition by logging on to a contest page at The-Signal.com and uploading a video in either the Professsional or the Amateur category.

Online voting determined three Amateur finalists, and the panel of judges determined the Professional finalists. The same panel also chose the first-, second- and third-place winners on SCV Rock Star Night.

Prizes worthy of a rock star
The contest's First Place Professional and First Place Amateur winners each score an impressive prize package including:
* Six hours of recording studio time at the all-new Command Recording Studios in the Valencia Industrial Center;
* Four hours of studio time at Hubbadaddy's in Centre Pointe, the hottest state-of-the-art rehearsal space in the SCV:
* A headlining local show produced by Higher Level Productions, the SCV's top music promoter;
* A professionally produced performance-based music video courtesy videographer Brandon Blair of Artistry Cinematics;
* A professional photo sesssion by veteran rock photographer Paige Burghardt, courtesy of Paige Photography;
* Followup press coverage here on The-Signal.com and in the print edition of The Signal's Escape section.

"It's so hard to find money and a place to record, because it can get really expensive really fast," Renfue's Jones said. "Six hours at Command is great for us. We're going to do some pre-production for new songs so we can record a full-length album in the next few months. And a place to jam at Hubbadaddy's studios for four hours is really good to practice and get those songs really tight.

"Also, the music video is really cool," Jones continued. "I saw some of (Artistry Cinematics') work, and it was really legit and high-quality, so we're really excited about that, too. All this will be really helpful."

The Second-prize winners in each division, Aaron Wong and un:armed, score four hours at Command and two hours at Hubbadaddy's.

The Third-place winners, The FBI Band and Jessie Seely, get two hours at Command and two hours at Hubbadaddy's.

For her Best Video, Seely picked up bragging rights and further exposure when her award-winning "Pretty" video is posted on The-Signal.com, the SCV Rock Star MySpace page, and The Signal's YouTube channel.

Judges' Notes: Pros
"I like the vibe of (Renfue) a lot," said SCV Rock Star Judge Joe Elliott, a guitarist and bandmember as well as a vice president at the Musicians Institute college of music in Hollywood. "It is a BAND. They look, act, sound and probably argue like a band. The songs are cool and the performance was solid."

"They relate to their audience, which brings the audience to them," said SCV Rock Star Judge Thea Stern of the Stern Talent Agency, a specialist in working with young talent. Stern was entertainment chair for the SCV Boys & Girls Club "Day for Kids," which drew an estimated 6,800 people to Newhall Park the day after this.

"The members all play well off of each other," Stern said. "Excellent vocalist (Yvonne). "The only drawback is all their songs sound the same. After the first three, we were ready for something different. Change it up a little. They are too great to sell themselves short like that live. They have a great future ahead and are definitely ready for the next level."

Elliott likewise suggested Renfue eschew sonic sameness. "Some more dramatic variation in dynamics would have helped them keep my interest longer," he said. "My advice to them would be to be cautious about redundancy in writing.

"But that's a double-edged sword," Elliott continued. "Let me explain. Every artist needs to have continuity in sound from song to song, but without having all the songs sounding the same, whether because of tempo, key or arrangement, etc. A good producer with an ear for walking that fine line would be great for these guys.

"Their video ("What You Wanted") was very good and kept my interest every time I watched it. These guys are certainly aware of the need to be 'the whole package' -- music and show. I hope they get hooked up with the right people."

"(Renfue) sounded awesome and put so much energy into every one of their songs," said Brian Vasquez, a DJ/producer/remixer at KROQ-FM/Los Angeles who has worked with Beastie Boys, Audioslave, 311, Godsmack, Green Day, Foo Fighters, Jane's Addiction, LL Cool J, Porno for Pyros and many others. 

"(Renfue) played for a long time to show off all the songwriting they've accomplished, which is rare these days," Vasquez continued. "This band has a lot of depth and they have a ton of potential to be successful. Each band member has a unique personality/feel that they contribute and it all works.

"This is the right time for them to strike and take advantage of all the incredible opportunities at their feet," Vasquez said. "Thanks to The-Signal.com, Higher Level and the sponsors, they have a chance to blow up."

With all credit due to Renfue, all five judges noted backstage after the voting was over that their final Professional scores might have been different, had Seely performed with a band -- she opted to sing to pre-recorded tracks because she doesn't have a regular backing unit -- and un:armed not had technical difficulties with lead singer/guitarist Douglas Gledhill's amp and effects rig.

"Jessie definitely has the sound, the voice and the material," Stern said. "The problem I had was, she needed a band. Her style just doesn't fit a solo artist. If that is her route, she needs to change for live performances. Even though she has a lot of energy, she is not presenting it well in her stage performance."

Vasquez basically agreed, but added, "It took a lot of confidence and belief in herself to perform (without a band)."

Elliott would rather have heard a band behind her, too, he said. "Something magic happens between a singer, band and audience. That same magic never seems to happen with a singer, tracks and audience. Such was the case Friday. I have no doubt that Jessie would have knocked us out if she had performed with a band who had her same energy level and passion.

"A couple of us judges mentioned that to her after the night was over, and she explained the difficulties involved in getting and keeping a band together," Elliott added. "At the risk of sounding smug, welcome to the music business."

Instead of packing it in when his equipment went south, Gledhill plugged his guitar into a more simple amp setup and led un:armed through a sampling of their less intense material, including "This Nightmare." 

What the evening's final set lacked in atmospheric effects was made up for by un:armed's music, stripped down to its basics yet still getting through to the audience. The judges were among those who thought it was an admirable display of show-must-go-onsmanship.

"By their professionalism and not giving up, they truly deserved to be there," Stern said. "Their sound is on the money and they, too, look like a band. They hold a great future -- we will see them in the headlines."

"It was disappointing that (un:armed) had some gear problems that altered their plan for the evening, but that happens to everybody," Elliott said. "I've lived it, and it's tough. Their performance was good and their musicianship showed, even though the plan changed." 

Elliott had additional comments on un:armed's writing and arranging. "The video (for "This Nightmare") was creepy and fun at the same time and was the right visual partner for the song," he said. "The songwriting was dark and cool and the arrangement and production were consistent with the writing. I'd like to hear more from this band."

"Musically and lyrically I think (un:armed) is simply amazing," Vasquez said. "I have been fortunate enough to see them perform on other occasions in big venues throughout L.A. Doug is a really gifted songwriter and the intimacy he conveys to the audience really stays with you and makes you feel closer to the band. The more you see them the more you feel like you are part of something special."

Vasquez certainly knows about rockstar 'tudes, and finds un:armed a welcome change. "Un:armed has such a perfect attitude about this business, and they really come across as genuinely good-hearted, hard-working musicians who deserve only the greatest success ahead," he said.

Judges' Notes: Ams
Johnny Strat was the judges' top choice. "This dude simply had the greatest performance of the entire night...including the professional bands," Vasquez said. 

"Johnny's stage presence was extremely impressive," he added. "I was amazed at how comfortable he was performing such intimate songs. He's frightening -- as in, it's really scary to see someone with that much raw talent."

Stern agreed. "Definitely raw talent -- (Strat) is amazing even solo. His voice is clear and marketable and everyone can relate to his songs. With the right management team and exposure, he is a star in the making."

SCV Rock Star Judge Adam Philipson, managing director and talent booker of the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center, also thought Strat was the evening's top performer, giving him 9 points out of a possible 10.

Elliott gave Strat a 10. "From an artistic standpoint, Johnny's songs were strong and his performance was heartfelt -- the best combination," said  "From a mechanical standpoint, his voice has a comfortable quality, his pitch accuracy was good, his time was good and his guitar playing was strong enough to support his songs."

Overall, Elliott said, "For a 17-year-old kid to write and perform at the level is unusual, but for me, the thing I keep coming back to is that he was very believable. It's hard to teach that."

Second-place winner Aaron Wong entertained the judges, too.

"This guy made me laugh all night long...a great entertainer with an awesome sense of humor," Vasquez said. "I enjoyed listening to his performance and he really captured his audience. Seeing him interact with the crowd really brought a different element to the evening and made it much more personal. I could see a lot of people get more comfortable watching and laughing with him."

"(Wong) has great style and his personality comes through in every performance," Stern said. "He comes across as a great guy with a nice voice. However, he leans toward a Karaoke quality, someone I would hear in a lounge or at a party. He has not yet crossed over to that concert performer everyone would be waiting to see. The potential is there and with a little more risk-taking in song choice and presentation, he will definitely make a name for himself."

[Editor's note: You gotta give the kid props for the soulful, slowed-down, solo guitar version of "Never Gonna Give You Up," singer Rick Astley's Stock-Aitken-Waterman-produced 1987-88 U.K./U.S. dance hit.]

"Aaron was definitely entertaining," Elliott said. "I love music with a sense of humor and his music has that. If he is serious about music as a career, he'll have to find a better balance between funny and creativity. It's a tough place to be but there are plenty of funny and solidly creative songwriter-artists out there.

"Look at Roger Miller, Jerry Reed, and 20 years ago, David Lee Roth's post-Van Halen humorous approaches to covering songs," Elliott added. "These references may be ancient but the style doesn't matter -- it's the idea that you look at the world through your 'funny lens' while making good music. Aaron is creative enough, he just needs to experiment with the balance."

Third-place Amateur winners The FBI Band got the most mixed reviews. Vasquez didn't like them, Stern was not impressed, and Philipson gave the foursome his lowest score, a 5 out of 10. Elliott had a different take, perhaps because he was a rocker in his mis-spent youth, now has four sons, most in their teens, and is also an educator.

"You have to love it when young guys are working at playing as a band," he said. "Brings back memories for me. My advice is for these guys to get an more experienced musician to come out to a few rehearsals for some coaching. A few tips will point these talented and enthusiastic guys in the right direction and their natural musicianship, creativity and energy will take care of the rest. Sometimes when you are 15, 16 or 17, you don't know what you don't know, and a few pointers can save years of trial and error. Seriously, guys -- stay with it."

Judges Notes: Best Video
"Within the first 15 seconds of watching Jessie's video, I was sold," Elliott said. "The song was well-written and clever and had a sense of humor."

"I am still blown away by Jessie's video," Vasquez said. "She said she did it all on her own and edited it by herself...I still can't believe it. She is extremely talented at capturing someone's attention and driving her point home."

How the judges judged
Joining Elliott, Phillipson, Stern and Vasquez on the SCV Rock Star judges' panel was Craig Duswalt, former rock star personal assistant/road manager (Axl Rose, Air Supply).

The judges met each other for the first time at the SCV Rock Star concert finale. They had done their first round of voting to choose the finalists by e-mail with the contest producer; there was no communication between the judges.

For Friday night's finals, they watched and listened to the six eligible artists and groups perform live, then met in the same room backstage to discuss the performances and make their choices.

They gave the contest the benefit of their collective years of experience working with young musical talent, donating six hours of their time on a Friday night without compensation and with much enthusiasm and encouragement.

"It was amazing to see that the judges were so close in their results -- it shows that true talent will always rise to the top," said Bret Lieberman, Higher Level co-owner.

Judges' Notes: The Contest & Concert
The five judges also gave the SCV Rock Star contest and the final concert their 10 thumbs up.

"I was very excited to participate in this competition and very, very impressed with the bands' videos," Vasquez said. "It's great to see such passion in each and every one of those kids. It makes this type of competition rewarding for me."

"I was very pleased to be involved with the SCV Rock Star project," Philipson said. "It was an incredible opportunity for the entire valley to get to know some of our local bands, and find out what talented rising stars we have among us that -- who knows? -- may be performing one day at the Performing Arts Center. Awesome job."

Higher Level's Lieberman brothers Bret and Kevin promoted and produced the SCV Rock Star Night show in association with The-Signal.com, which produced the contest portion of the project. Kevin and HL's Matt Tapia were also stage managers and sound, lighting and technical engineers.

Bret emceed the show with this writer, who created and produced the contest for The-Signal.com with technical assistance from Joe Choo, The Signal's IT manager.

Artistry Cinematics' Brandon Blair shot video of the event, while Lisa Lujano and Lisa Lane of La Lu Productions interviewed the artists backstage on-camera for the duo's in-progress "Rockstar Reality" video documentary about the SCV rock scene. Photographer Paige Burghardt shot stills during the concert and portraits backstage.

The Sports Complex' Activities Center is operated by the city of Santa Clarita, and city staff and setup/teardown/cleanup crews were also on hand and helpful at the venue throughout the evening.
 
"My hat goes off to and Bret and Kevin of Higher Level and Stephen K. Peeples of The-Signal.com for making the SCV Rock Star concert event possible," Stern said. "It is amazing to see so much talent in our valley."

"It was great to see so many musicians from the Santa Clarita Valley united in one place -- the energy was amazing," Kevin Lieberman said. "It was awesome to have the opportunity to showcase so many artists from the SCV. We had everything from reggae to parody jams to soft rock to modern rock, all under one roof.

"Higher Level Productions is always looking to help promote local talent, and we were honored to be included in the SCV Rock Star contest by producing this final show," he said.

"I'd like to thank all the sponsors and The-Signal.com for helping us pull off such a successful event," Bret added.

Sponsors
The contest sponsors were out in full force for SCV Rock Star Night -- Mountain View Public High School, the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center at College of the Canyons, and Robek's of North Park Village, as well as Command Recording Studios, Hubbadaddy's Rehearsal Studios, Paige Photography, Musicians Institute, La Lu Productions, Artistry Cinematics, RockStar System for Success and Seminars, The Signal newspaper, The-Signal.com and Higher Level Productions.

Yes I Can
A portion of the proceeds from the $10 admission went to the Hart district's Yes I Can program for students with and without disabilities. The students will put their take, still being determined at press time, toward funding their sixth annual Summer Meltdown concert next spring at Golden Valley High School's outdoor amphitheater.

Sequel?
"People are already talking about next year," Tapia said.

"I think (The-Signal.com and Higher Level) should definitely do SCV Rock Star again next year," Renfue's Rob Jones said. "We have a lot of good bands out here who still don't have videos. Next year, if people know it's happening they'll try a lot harder to get videos done for their songs.

"The concert was really good because it brought all the local bands together," Jones noted. "It just got a lot of different people together in the same spot to have fun, and we got to do what we love -- just play music for other people. Hopefully they enjoyed it because I know we did, and it was a great opportunity for everybody to come out and have fun on a Friday night."

"I would love to see this event grow, bringing in others from other valleys to see the artists the SCV has to offer," Stern said. "I would like to see more marketing, and I definitely think the city should get involved and support this wonderful forum you guys have created."

Stay tuned for coverage in the weeks ahead as The-Signal.com spends some time at Command Recording Studios and Hubbadaddy Rehearsal Studios with the winners.

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