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Battle of the Bands in the DECC Arena

"I've been singing since I could talk," says Lauren Verhel, the 18-year-old lead singer for the Bricks. The Bricks are one of 15 high school bands that will compete Sunday in the second annual Battle of the Bands in the DECC Arena. Verhel also sa...

"I've been singing since I could talk," says Lauren Verhel, the 18-year-old lead singer for the Bricks.

The Bricks are one of 15 high school bands that will compete Sunday in the second annual Battle of the Bands in the DECC Arena. Verhel also sang last year with the group, who represent Marshall School, even though she's a senior at Proctor High School.

She remembers the excitement.

"It was in the DECC Arena, it was amazing," Verhel recalled. "They had professional sound, professional lighting, the huge Battle of the Bands backdrop behind us -- and the band who won, they had incredible audience response."

The Bricks finished second that day. This year, they're hoping to hear that roar come up from the crowd for them.

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They have a good chance. Verhel and the band's other lead vocalist, 18-year-old Sam McKinney, plan to attend professional music schools next year. McKinney, who sings while he drums, is headed to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Verhel is going to McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul.

Guitar player Jason Munn, 24, is studying music performance at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The other guitarist, Reuben Verdoljak, is similarly driven. A junior at Duluth East, he has played cello and piano since he was 5 and appreciates the knowledge of musical structure it has given him. That said, on guitar he rocks out. Bass player Nick Spielman has time to catch up: He's a 14-year-old sophomore at Marshall who is into jazz and rock.

The young musicians speak passionately about what they do. The songwriters, McKinney and Verhel, write all their material -- except the occasional Jimi Hendrix or Leonard Cohen song. The dual guitarists invent the forms that make the lyrics live. The songs are all intense collaborations among the five. McKinney spoke of humming a riff into Munns' cell-phone answering service and hearing him play the result a few days later. Most of their solos are improvised, and each musician composes for his instrument.

What's the Bricks' music like? Lots of styles are mentioned, but the consensus seems to be the guitar-driven improvisational musicianship of the Allman Brothers. It seems odd that a 30-years-ago band would be something that these kids would even know about, but they've listened hard, and not only to the usual suspects. These are kids who live and breathe music, in all kinds of forms and styles.

Battle of the Bands success

Tim Wigchers of Junior Achievement has created a monster in the two years the Battle of the Bands has been around. Last year, 14 bands drew 1,200 fans.

This year, Wigchers has 25 sponsors, including Fitzphoto, which shot photos of the bands last year, and McNally Smith College of Music, which offers professional sound for the show and will record it for a later CD release.

"We built a great planning committee with great resources," Wigchers said. "We have people on board with connections to the music industry who've been able to get professionals like our sound engineer this year, Eddie Mapp. He did the sound for the last Evanescence tours. Kids are very excited about him."

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The McNally Smith College of Music connection is giving them more than great production values. They also have a couple of serious celebrity judges: Ed Cherney, a Grammy-winning producer, and Louis Andre Fischer, a star producer who joined McNally Smith as dean of music industries in 2006.

"Industry people are really intrigued by this event," Wigchers said, and they want to be involved. "There are a lot of ad hoc competitions, but this is more. About half our bands have won competitions at their schools, so it's becoming a pinnacle event. We already have more bands and schools interested than we have slots. It's a great problem to have."

There's a career emphasis to the show, with all this professional involvement. High school students who want a music career are well served by the opportunity, and grown-up musicians in the community love to help.

"Absolutely the old rockers and wanna-be rockers are approaching us, wanting to get involved. But there are also people interested in the Career Expo we're holding in Paulucci Hall before the battle and during the intermission -- the point is the music, but we're sneaking in the expo as well -- for the kids, but also for their parents," Wigchers said. "Many companies are telling us that they are really excited about being able to talk to people from all across northern Minnesota."

If you go:

What: Second annual Battle of the Bands, a contest for bands representing their high schools across the Northland

When: Doors open at 1 p.m. Sunday, and the battle begins at 2 p.m.

Where: DECC Arena

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Tickets: $12 for main floor and $10 for balcony seats. Buy them in advance at participating high schools and Little Stores, and get a $2 Subway coupon.

More: This is a Junior Achievement event; attend the Career Expo before the music begins. Go to www.highschoolrocks.org .

Battle of the Bands lineup

In order of appearance:

No Such Hero, Webster

Beyond Monday, Proctor

The Planets, International Falls

HydroWizard, Superior

Colmekill, Eveleth

Forfend, Two Harbors

Only Ashes Remain, Duluth Central

Persephone, Cloquet

Amauros, Hermantown

Fall of the Condemned, Hinckley-Finlayson

The Summer Scene, Drummond

The Grasshoppers, Duluth East

The Bricks, Duluth Marshall

Aphamy, Ashland

19:11, Duluth Denfeld

More music

The McNally Smith College of Music is using the recording of the DECC show as a final exam for its professional sound recording students, and also will produce a CD with one song from each band. The CD will be released at a show starting at 7 p.m. May 18 in Grandma's Sports Garden, 425 S. Lake Ave. The top four bands from Sunday's contest will play full sets. Cover is $5.

ANN KLEFSTAD covers arts and entertainment for the Duluth News Tribune. Read her blog, Makers, at www.duluth.com , and at Area Voices on www.duluthnewstribune.com . Reach her at aklefstad@duluthnews.com .

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