You might know Ben Barnett as the raw-voiced singer of Kind of Like Spitting, the long-running Portland band with the tumultuous past. In fact, odds are, you might have actually been in the band at one point, since KOLS' lineup has easily had over 50 members throughout the years. But this is not about Barnett the singer, a flawed yet dedicated performer with raw, emotional songs that gush forth like a spilled vein. This is about Barnett the teacher, an instructor for the Portland chapter of the Paul Green School of Rock, and the curator of their upcoming "Best of the Northwest" showcase. And even more so, it's about continuing the legacy of local music. The school is similar in structure to (but essentially different from) its nonprofit peers at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, and specializes in teaching its students rock music in the live setting. Every three months the students perform at local clubs, covering the music of anyone from Pink Floyd, to punk, to "classic metal." But the upcoming Northwest-themed show is the work of Barnett. In fact, his passion for Northwest music is only exceeded by his students' desire to perform it.
In assembling his curriculum, which covers everyone from the Wipers to Built to Spill, Barnett was forced to balance his role as a teacher with the natural jadedness that comes with being a struggling local musician. "It's easy to live here in Portland, be miserable, move away, and then get nostalgic," he says. "But how can these kids not know 'Rebel Girl'? How can these kids not know about Unwound?" exclaims an excited Barnett. "I came in the other day and Michelle [a student of the school] was listening to Team Dresch's 'Don't Try Suicide,' and that's not the song of theirs that we're covering. To watch that spark in the students, it's incredible."
To Barnett, passing the torch to future generations of musicians is summed up in a single word: "Imperative." He adds, "You can't lead a life without Unwound. You can't ignore Elliott Smith or Sleater-Kinney."
As much student as he is teacher, Barnett realized that in the school-sponsored Sabbath or Beatles performances, the kids were never able to connect with the artists they covered. In order to knock down some walls between the fans and the performers, Barnett recruited an impressive lineup of regional heavy hitters, a small portion of which will include Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), Sara Lund (Unwound), Steve Turner (Mudhoney), David Bazan (Pedro the Lion), and in the category of not exactly from the Northwest—but so what, he lives here now—Stephen Malkmus will be joining the kids as well.
Of course, you can't cover a region's worth of artistic output in a single evening, a realization not lost on school director Carl Hinds. "Just trying to keep it at 30 songs was next to impossible," he says. "There's just too much good music from the Northwest." And the students share his respect for the material, says Tuesday, a 14-year-old whose enthusiastic take on music, as both a performer and a fan, is downright infectious. "Some of the songs we're doing for the Northwest show have a lot of hard parts, but they are more thought through than most punk or metal songs we cover, so you feel it more. And that's important."