A Look Back at the High School Rock Off as It Turns 20

Concert Preview

click to enlarge Nicholas Megalis performs at the 2007 High School Rock Off. - Courtesy of Live Nation
Courtesy of Live Nation
Nicholas Megalis performs at the 2007 High School Rock Off.
When the annual High School Rock Off launched some 20 years ago at the Odeon, the promoters at the locally-based Belkin Productions (now Live Nation) intended it to serve as a way to reach out to area high schools and provide students with the kind of outlet that they might not have. Two decades later, the event, which takes place at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on consecutive Saturdays in January (and one in February) before concluding with final exam on Feb. 13, continues to thrive.

“A battle of the bands wasn’t a novel concept, but we thought it would be a great opportunity to reach out to local high school students, not necessarily college students or unsigned bands, but we wanted to identity bands in the high school world,” says Live Nation’s Barry Gabel who organizes the event each year with fellow Live Nation representative Frank Imoff. “Many music programs at that time were getting cut. Kids had sports or the debate team, but the live music opportunities might not have been there. They didn’t have an outlet to play in front of music industry people in a setting that was professional with production and a staff and the status of someone like Belkin Productions. We also thought it would be good to keep the doors open during that January time period.”

That first year, the event took place at the Odeon, the once-prominent music club in the Flats (the club was shuttered for many years and has now opened under new management and is no longer affiliated with Live Nation). Some 30 bands submitted their music, and the competition took place over three weekends. Every band that submitted that year was accepted into the competition.

Imhoff, who would later manage the Odeon, worked the merch booth at the event. Gabel admits it was still a work-in-progress at the time.

“I remember the quality of the bands and the sound at that first one, and every band seemed like three chords and a cloud of dust,” says Gabel. “They were all Sum 41 or Green Day. There weren’t a lot of types of music. It was either punk or thrash metal. There wasn’t a lot of spacing in the music.”

Tickets cost only $5, and all the dates were well-attended. Qwasi Qwa, a band that featured singer-guitarist Jesse Bryson, the son of former Raspberries guitarist Wally Bryson, took home top honors. The group would play locally in the wake of the Rock Off.

“I think the reason they won is because they were really different from almost every other band,” says Gabel. “Usually, that’s the reason why bands win. They also had some incredible pedigree. For them and every band that won, you felt that they were invested. Even if they were not going to make it for the long run, they were invested and put all their chips in and wanted to figure it out.”

While the pop rock act Jaded Era didn’t place some years it competed and only finished third when it competed in 2001, it became one of the most successful groups to emerge from that era of the Rock Off. The band, which featured powerhouse singer Kira Leyden and guitarist Jeff Andrea (the two are now married and play together in the pop/rock act Jaded Era), turned heads when they performed at the competition simply because they seemed so professional.

“They made an incredible run,” says Gabel. “I thought they were one of the most polished bands we ever had. [Leyden] was really poised. Jeff Andrea was good too. They were good musicians and understood spacing and sometimes less is more when you play. The winning bands usually have someone who can sing or they’re different from all the other bands.”

“They’re smart people,” adds Imhoff. “They know the music side and the business side as well. They came back and hosted a Rock Off at the Odeon. When they first competed, you could tell they were working on this as a career.”

The band subsequently moved to L.A. where it secured a recording deal. It has since relocated to Akron and rechristened itself the Strange Familiar. It continues to record and play regionally.

After the Odeon closed, the event moved to the Rock Hall in 2007.

“That was the best selling and highest grossing Rock Off we had,” says Imhoff. “You had the parents and families making a day of it at the Rock Hall.”

That same year, oddball singer-songwriter Nicholas Megalis finished third. He’s gone on to become an Internet sensation thanks to the quirky videos he posts.

“It was him and a girl,” says Imhoff when asked about Megalis’ performance at the Rock Off. “He was very energetic and expressive. I think he was ahead of the curve a little bit. He was a performer. He seemed older than he was. I knew he would do something in music.”

“You can tell because of the heritage,” adds Gabel when asked whether he knew Megalis would amount to something. “His father was creative. He was on WMMS. He grew up in a creative household. He was so different from most of the performers that were in bands. Most of them would do the pose. Some people would know when to take the microphone and point it to the audience. It was about him. He was the show. If people went around for the ride, great. He didn’t care if you got him or not. He was going to do his thing.”

And then when Live Nation and House of Blues merged, the event moved to House of Blues for the next seven years.

“Some of the people involved in the Rock Off were sound people and production people who also worked at House of Blues,” says Gabel. “It gave us a professional stage and crew. It also helped the House of Blues because it was dead in the winter and we were bringing people to the restraint and the venue. When the bands were on the main stage and they know that Metallica has played there and other bands had played there, they really get off on that. The judges are in the front row of the balcony, and it’s really a special place. Time Warner Cable starting filming it and interviewed the bands that made it to the Final Exam.”

Imhoff says the bands and organizers would mingle in the club’s Green Room and a real camaraderie developed.

“The event changed from my perspective,” he says. “That’s when we got to know the kids and when social media was taking off. The relationships really started to build. We would talk to the kids and parents, and it was more personal. We didn’t have that connectivity at the Odeon.”

One of the success stories from that era, Sean Grandillo played with the band Crazed, who finished second in 2011. He took his talents to Broadway and he now stars in the play Spring Awakening, which is currently playing in New York.

“He’s told me that playing at those Rock Offs was instrumental because he could get in front of a crowd and try stuff that was so different,” says Gabel. “He left Aurora High School to go to the Chagrin Performing Arts Academy.”

Grandillo majored in theater at Ithaca College and then moved to Los Angeles, where he got a gig in a play because he could both play music and sing.

Last year, the contest moved back to the Rock Hall of Fame and Museum. Imhoff says it’s a good fit.

“It puts us on neutral ground — it’s not the Beachland, Agora, or Grog Shop — we’re at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” says Frank. “The Rock Hall really welcomed us back. It’s been a great partnership.”

Coincidentally, this year also marks the Rock Hall’s 20th anniversary.

“We never thought about it, but it worked out nicely,” says Gabel. “Even their logo ties in with our logo. I love it. The thing that makes it a good deal is that it’s $10, and it usually costs $20 to get into the Rock Hall. Parents can see their ‘gods’ playing in front of the gods and legends of rock ’n’ roll. Parents can show their kids the bands they listened to. Kids can say they’re big Nirvana fans and parents can talk about CSNY.”

At the end of the day, Gabel says the Rock Off provides a great opportunity for young musicians to mingle.

“You think nobody else can play what you’re playing," he says. "My goal has been to get these kids together from the east side and west side and from the south. I want to show them people from totally different backgrounds. Whoever you’re playing with today may not be the person you’re playing with. It’s rare that someone like [the Black Keys] Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach will stay together forever and ever. It’s a good opportunity to play with and listen to other people. Some of the bands have merged into different bands and asked other people to sit in with them. That’s great. It’s one of the key, shining moments of the past 20 years.”

Organizers have extended the deadline for submissions to Thursday, Dec 31. Entry forms are at kisscleveland.com/rockoff, and bands must submit a 2-song demo via CD or the Rock Off Soundcloud. There is a $60 entry fee. Entry forms and fees have to be mailed in; there are no drop-offs because the Chagrin Falls office is closed during the holidays.

The Annual Tri-C High School Rock Off, 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9, 16, 23, 30 and Feb. 6 and 13, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, 1100 East Ninth St., 216-781-7625. Tickets: $10, kisscleveland.com/rockoff.  
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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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