When musician Alice Cooper kicks off his signature charity fundraiser event “Christmas Pudding” at Comerica Theater with actor Johnny Depp and a host of other entertainers in Phoenix this weekend, a group of East Valley rockers will be taking the stage — and perform as the opening band.
They’re a young band you maybe haven’t heard of — but if they keep working their craft, we just might all come to know them in the near future.
Smokestack — a group of six musicians ranging in age from 13 to 18 from Steven Berg’s Rock’N’Roll High School in Chandler— were selected to perform as the opening band at “Alice Cooper’s Christmas Pudding,” charity concert at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Smokestack emerged as the winner, topping 40 other local bands by performing two songs at Cooper’s “The Proof is in the Pudding” music competition at his Cooperstown restaurant in downtown Phoenix about three weeks ago.
It was a competition that included seasoned bands in an age group of up to 25. The competition was judged by people in the music scene, such as popular disc jockey Ruby Cheeks of KDKB (93.3-FM) and musician Randy Spencer.
The two songs that Smokestack sang were “Going Down,” an original Bob Dylan-type song — the song they will perform Saturday -- and “A Merry Jingle,” a Christmas song that debuted in 1979 by the Punk Rock band, The Greedies.
The lead singer of Smokestack is 17-year-old Jared Berg, a senior at Gilbert High School, who just started singing for the group seven months ago.
Other members of Smokestack are: drummer Cameron Holladay, 13, who attends Centennial Middle School in Ahwatukee; Skylar Shapiro-Frost, 17, a Gilbert Mesquite High School senior on bass guitar; Marce Festa, 15, of Williams Field High School on rhythm guitar; and guitarists Sam Lehtinen, 16, of Chandler’s Perry High School, and Nick Torre, 18, a senior at Williams Field.
Drummer Chastin Short, 13, filled in for Cameron Holladay during the competition last week.
One might think that with Cooper’s age — 64 — and him mostly being known to a slightly older generation (notice how I said slightly older, but not old, ‘cause we’re not), that these young whippersnappers taking the stage before Cooper does, likely wouldn’t know who Cooper is.
Or the legacy in music he’s blazed throughout parts of five decades.
But, as Smokestack is finding its way by playing classic rock and blues and original music already at places such as Chandler’s Tumbleweed Park, the Hard Rock Cafe’, Tempe Marketplace, the Musical Instrument Museum and Warren’s Jazz Bistro — they do know who Cooper is, and know they have to be at the top of their game when they blast out “Going Down.”
Jared Berg, the son of Steven Berg, said since winning the competition, the band has been “practicing, practicing, practicing.”
And, that’s what it takes.
“It’s extremly exciting,” said Jared. “It was a huge opportunity just to play in the competition. We’re so pumped and practicing a couple times a week. It’s awesome.”
He added, “We’re all pretty big classic rock guys, so we know who Alice Cooper is. We’re trying to tie everything up and get everything to sound as good as possible.”
Smokestack’s members have a good foundation to launch their careers from that is a good concept — Rock’N’Roll High School itself.
The school, located at 900 E. Pecos Road at McQueen Road in Chandler (its website address is www.rocknrollhighschool.biz), is an after-school program for students ages 7 through 19 who want to enter the music industry. It was the brainchild of Steven Berg, a homebuilder who owns Shenandoah Homes.
Rock’N’Roll High School opened at its current location in February 2012. Berg originally started the school in the Learning Foundation and Performing Arts Center in Gilbert, when he jokingly said he hit a “mid-life” crisis.
The school’s goal and mission is to hone the passion and skills of its students while getting them used to performing on stage in front of family and friends. The instructors mostly are music majors at nearby colleges who are in their 20s and can easily relate to the students.
“It’s the Little League of Rock’N’Roll,” Steven Berg said. “We really like to get the kids used to playing together in a band and getting used to being on stage.”
And at “Christmas Pudding,” Smokestack gets a chance to set the stage.
“It’s pretty amazing for a group that’s been together less than a year,” Steven Berg said of Smokestack’s playing skills. “Competing against bands that have three to five years experience, it’s really kind of a testament to their abilities. They acted like they owned the stage and blew the socks off everybody. They’ve really progressed in a short amount of time.”
And like their performance at Alice Cooper’s Christmas Pudding event, the Smokestack’s upcoming Hurricane Sandy benefit show at San Tan Village is something you won’t want to miss.
After all, if you go see them, they very well could be a group of musicians you’d be proud to say, “I saw them when they were just starting out ...”
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