FOR ALL the fantastic events on Portland's musical calendar, there may be none as joyous, as heartwarming, as straight up fun as School of Rock's annual "Best! of Portland" show. Now in its third year, the concert pairs students from the Portland chapter of School of Rock with members of local bands, sharing the stage for performances of said bands' songs. The exuberance and natural talent of the School of Rock players—all ages eight to 18—coupled with the firepower of the Portland bands on the bill results in a complete knockout of a show. If you're in the slightest bit serious about local music, it's an unmissable event.
Dani Fish, an instructor and assistant manager for the Portland School of Rock, first hatched the idea back in 2011, partly inspired by a "Best of the Northwest" show in December 2007 in which members of Pacific Northwest bands like Mudhoney and Death Cab for Cutie sat in with students. "We sit there every season and talk with the teachers," says Fish, "and ask, 'What should we do this season? What are the kids into? What are some bands or genres we haven't hit?' And I was feeling at the time like the School of Rock was disconnected from the music scene here. We were doing a bunch of classic rock, and not really playing music where there were females in the band. And Portland does a really good job of having a lot of diversity in our bands. All those things made me think, I want to do a show where it's just about Portland, because I love the music in Portland."
Students have spent the fall term carefully learning their parts to songs by the Thermals, Typhoon, Laura Veirs, and lots more. At various points in the process, members of the actual band get involved, coming to School of Rock's facility on SE Hawthorne and rehearsing with the kids as preparation for the big performance. Some bands get heavily involved—Peter Hughes of Sons of Huns actually became an instructor following his involvement in last year's "Best! of Portland"—while others less so, but this is the first year in which every song on the setlist includes a member of the original band joining the kids.
This year's show, in particular, has broadened the School of Rock curriculum. "There are almost no traditional rock songs in the set, except for the bands in Portland that are doing rock 'n' roll, like some of the heavier stuff—Sons of Huns, Gaytheist," Fish says. "That's all traditional, and that's the easiest stuff to figure out by ear. But most of the other bands have all these electronic elements. Even Wild Ones—we had to do a bunch of programming to pull off their song. And we're doing a Miracles Club song. One of our kids actually programmed the entire thing."
As fun as the big show is, it's about more than just rocking out. "Our kids need to know about local music," says Fish, "and at the end of the day, the goal is for our kids to form bands. And so if they can see it happening around them, and meet musicians, and get a better idea of how it actually works, they can realize that to start a band, all you have to do is start a band—and that it's not such a lofty thing."