Live Nation's High School Rock Off, which crowns Northeast Ohio's wickedest teen band, has come a long way since its 1996 debut as "three chords and a cloud of dust." In tonight's first of six semifinal matches, you'll hear 12 of the 72 groups thrashing for a grand prize of $500 cash, a $1,000 Sam Ash shopping spree, and a gig at the House of Blues. But don't think winning is a cinch. "It's about getting educationally equipped to realize what it's going to take if you want to do this for a living," says Barry Gabel, the mouthpiece for the behemoth concert promoter. "That's what we're trying to cultivate at the end of the day, not just on the stage, but in the industry." The matchup is a far cry from the first contest, which was entered by 36 aspiring bands. Back in the day, the competition attracted a slew of novice metalheads, who weren't polished enough to set them apart from their fellow axe-grinders. This year's slate of bands, says Gabel, is more mature than the 1996 contenders. "They have home studios, and the equipment they record on these days is so much superior to 12 years ago," he says. "It's actually a joy to sit down in the room for two to three days and listen to all the CDs to make the selection process." While the competition still doesn't attract as many country and hip-hop artists as Gabel would like to see, he's impressed with the diversity of what he hears. And the bands are as equally awed by the contest's mission. "What we always tell all the participants is that the Rock Off isn't (about?) becoming a superstar," says Gabel. "It's about getting out of the basement and out of the garage." The semifinals are 5 p.m. today and tomorrow, and 5 p.m. Friday, January 18, Friday, January 25, and Saturday, January 26, with a 4 p.m. matchup on Sunday, January 27. The finals are 3 p.m. Saturday, February 2, at the House of Blues, 308 Euclid Avenue. Tickets are $8. Call 216-523-2583 or visit www.hob.com.
Jan. 11-12, 5 p.m.; Fri., Jan. 18, 5 p.m.; Jan. 25-26, 5 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 27, 4 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 2, 3 p.m., 2008