Crossing over the Saugatuck River into downtown Westport, Conn., the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Memorial Bridge boasts flags of dozens of United Nations member states. As seasons turn, the flags remain in a constant fluid motion, waving and welcoming guests passing over the bridge into the lovely town. On Friday evening, December 5th, 2014, rain batters from the sky in a temperature that feels like it ought to be snowing. The flags violently jolt and thrash in the freezing wind.
Just across the bridge inside Toquet Hall, Westport’s own teen center, giddy, grinning high school students whip and jerk to the sounds of their favorite live bands. Beneath the sparkly lights of a spinning disco ball is The Staples High School Nerdfighters Club, a local high school student-led social activism organization, and their annual concert to raise money and awareness for the Narcolepsy Network.
Before the show, teens giggle and gossip amidst the pop and crackle of soda can tops and bags of chips. They aggressively play fooseball and ping-pong until exhaustion, wherein they plop onto the many comfy couches lining the big, circular event space. When the music starts, some remain planted on the couches. Others bravely approach the foot of the stage to see their friends play up close and to jam, Coke in hand.
The Nerdfighters concert is just one event of many scheduled this month. The tall, round, green stucco building with a wooden cone roof hidden in an alleyway among the town’s countless boutiques and restaurants has provided Westport teens with a safe environment of entertainment since 1998; in the form of comedy shows, videogame tournaments, movie nights, and most excitedly, performances of local upcoming bands.
Kevin Godburn, the director of Toquet Hall, scheduled tonight’s four bands. Jillian’s Therapist and C4S are student teen bands, while the members of Broadcast Hearts and Villains in Love are of ages 25-30.
“It’s great when the student bands get to play with really well-established bands like Broadcast Hearts,” says Godburn. “We get to see a lot of the kids that have come up through here, now moving up through college and just doing amazing things.”
“It was a huge part of my high school experience. I used to go there every weekend,” says Blake Charlton, the male half of Villains in Love, a pop doo-wop duo based out of Brooklyn, NY. “It helped me really get into the idea of writing original music.”
Charleton, a native of Weston, CT, the town north of Westport, recently attended a friend’s performance at Toquet Hall. The show’s vibrant energy nostalgically jolted the 30-year-old’s memories of both attending and performing concerts throughout his youth. He then emailed Godburn expressing an interest to return to the Toquet Hall stage. And so tonight, Charleton and fellow band mate and girlfriend, 25-year-old Renae Adams, have secured their keyboard onto the luggage rack of the Metro North train and trekked from Bushwick to Fairfield County to perform.
“We had no idea what Nerdfighters was,” admits Charleton. “But I remember always having the best time as a 15-year-old, seeing these bands from New York come in. So we’re like, now at that age of the bands that I used to see,” he said. “So I was like hey, you know what – let’s play a teen center!”
Though Villains in Love primarily enjoy performing at New York City venues such as the Lower East Side’s Rockwood Music Hall, what he calls a modern-day CBGB’s, they’ve been discouraged by the modern-day audience. They anticipate Toquet Hall to host a more energetic, engaging crowd. “No one cares really in New York,” says Charleton. “Fifteen year olds, even 18-year-olds – they still care. We’re not expecting crowd surfing,” says Charleton, “but hopefully kids will not be talking during our whole set and on their cell phones.”
The first band to perform is Jillian’s Therapist, a high school band that regularly plays at local bars and teen centers. The 14 to 16-year-old band mates have become accustomed to an audience on their cell phones – in the form of their parents recording the performance. Tonight, as the five-piece alternative rock cover band of four boys and one girl take the stage to cover songs by The Allman Brothers and Cage the Elephant, their parents take the couches adjacent to stage right. Middle-aged men and women smile as they hold up iPhones and iPads to record their budding, young musicians.
“We never get nervous,” says Julian Dinowitz, the band’s 16-year-old drummer of Redding, CT. “The worst that can happen is that your parents will still clap.”
“We just wanna have fun,” said 14-year-old guitar player Will Rosenthal of Ridgefield, CT earlier in the week, while slurping a secret Starbucks beverage, a thin mint Frappuccino.
Though tonight’s weather prevented the large crowd that Godburn expected, the energy is high. Lead singer Max Rothstein, 16, in a white tee, dark blue jeans, and red sneakers, triumphantly belts an impressive vocal set. Rosenthal nonchalantly shreds his mint green electric guitar in solo after solo. Dinowitz, barefoot, slams his drums faster and faster with each tune. The crowd roars.
After their set played C4S, another high school band. Two girls, one in pink Converse sneakers, sat on coffee stools and sang acoustic versions of songs by Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey, then asked the crowd to stand against the edge of the stage and join them in singing Feliz Navidad. The crowd laughed and swayed together in holiday harmony.
“I want the audience to be engaged, but I also just love the feeling when you sing or play a perfect note, and everything just feels right with the world,” says Jen Gouchoe, the 16-year-old lead singer of C4S. “It’s a feeling like no other.”
Next up, Villains in Love. By now, the crowd had dwindled to few. Many members of the bands and audience were scheduled to take an SAT exam the next morning, prompting parents to pick them up after the first half of the concert. Still, Villains in Love graced the stage with gusto. Charleton and Adams took turns banging on a Sharpie-tagged “Villains in Love” keyboard over dancey, energetic, pre-recorded pop tunes blaring from the sound speakers. They belted harmonies to original songs with lyrical themes of love and abandonment. They seemed to sing to each other, constantly smiling and dancing on stage, as if they were the only ones in the room.
And, lastly, Broadcast Hearts. The Trumbull, CT-based male trio of a pianist, bassist, and drummer, Broadcast Hearts’ work has been seen on Jimmy Kimmel Live, MTV, and Vh1. Avery Bazan, their 25-year-old lead singer and pianist, classifies their music as poppy, epic, arena rock, citing influences such as Coldplay, U2, and Mumford and Sons.
“It sounds really corny to say, but a lot of our songs really have a message of hope,” says Bazan earlier in the week, as he sips his hot chocolate. “A lot of punk songs, they just leave you with the ‘Oh, my girlfriend left me, this sucks, life sucks.’ Our songs always kinda have this, ‘my girlfriend left me, this sucks right now, but somebody else is on the horizon.’”
Broadcast Hearts perform shows at teen centers throughout Connecticut often; and have previously shared a stage with both Jillian’s Therapist and C4S. And though the trio continues to play at various venues, they’ve found their music’s prevalent lyrical themes of hope and perseverance translate beautifully to the high school audience of teen centers.
“We’re writing songs that are about either some of our best moments or some of our darkest moments. And, maybe that’s not what you’re looking for if you’re going out to a bar on a Saturday night,” explains Bazan. “But colleges and teen centers, the people who are going to those shows are in the midst of those moments. You know, it’s their first girlfriend, their first break up, the first time they’re driving their car. And that’s really what we’re talking about – we just found that it connected a lot better.”
These teen center performances are continually met with criticism by other musicians, to which Bazan asks a question. “When was the first time you heard your favorite band?” he’ll ask, almost always assured with the reply, “sometime in high school.”
“These rocks stars who are like, ‘Oh well, I’m not playing to some, you know, freshman,’” says Bazan. “And I’m like, ‘Do you realize, this is when the most important things in your life are happening?’”
Tonight, Bazan addresses the small crowd with gratitude. He graciously thanks the Nerdfighters for inviting Broadcast Hearts to perform, and encourages the audience to donate to their cause.
“We’re gonna play some good music for you guys,” as he smiles into the microphone. Dressed in a white button down shirt, dark blue jeans, and red sneakers, Bazan passionately plunges the piano keys and wails sweet original songs in accordance with his heavy-handed drummer and quick-fingered bassist. Bazan announces that he and his band mates will stick around to answer questions, sell band tee shirts and CD’s, and offer encouragement.
“Musicianship has this great potential to be really selfish,” he says. “You know? You’re getting on stage, everybody’s going to look at you, you’re going to tell them about your life. And, musicians start thinking that it’s about them, and it’s really not,” says Bazan. “You’re kinda like this lightning rod to reflect what people’s lives have been.”