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Kid Rock

Forget classical tunes and marching bands. Telluride's Rock and Roll Academy teaches children to play—and fall in love—with music as if they were rock stars themselves.

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See the Academy’s favorite girl band Juxtapoze on stage and at school in our multimedia slide show.

Juxtapoze is an all-girl band composed of four 13-year-olds who live in Telluride. Although the girls are generally polite and agreeable, like sitcom teens of the 1960s, they do have vociferous opinions where music is concerned. They think High School Musical is disgusting and painful to watch. They think boy bands are just too weird. And although each of them went through an AC/DC phase when they were little, they’re way past that. Now, they think Amy Winehouse is the coolest.

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It’s early winter and the girls are reflecting on their musical tastes because they have a big show this Saturday night, and like any band gunning for a little publicity they’ve agreed to have a conversation with a reporter and whatever inanities that may entail. What they really want to talk about is the concert and whether or not they will draw a big crowd.

Juxtapoze will be performing with nine other kid bands, all part of the Rock and Roll Academy, a private rock music school based in Telluride. That’s the good part. The bad part is that a touring ski event sponsored by Jeep has just blown into town, bringing with it a full slate of nightly musical acts, including Macy Gray and Michael Franti & Spearhead, who, as bad luck would have it, will be performing at the same time as the Academy. This makes the girls nervous. They’re afraid they’re going to lose their audience, and with it their musical edge—because if the members of Juxtapoze have learned anything at all about performing, it’s that they do way better when surrounded by a crowd of adoring fans screaming I love you-I love you-I love you!
The girls from Juxtapoze, and all the other bands appearing this weekend, will be performing thanks to the single-minded efforts of Mark Galbo, who founded the Rock and Roll Academy four years ago. It’s a fancy name—academy—and one not normally associated with Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden and all that other music our parents hated. But that’s by design. “Academy” is a serious word, a word that denotes focus, purpose, growth, and ambition, and that’s exactly what Galbo is trying to offer his students. To him, rock ‘n’ roll is just the medium. The message is about the magic that occurs when you meet kids on their own level.

On a wintry morning several days before the big concert, Galbo walks back and forth on the raised stage inside the Academy studio. The walls are persimmon red and papered with posters of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and Green Day; amps, speakers, guitars, keyboards, and drums crowd the small stage. Weaving in and out of the equipment, Galbo, a thoughtful man who can riff on the Who one minute and Buddhism the next, talks about how he came to teach rock in the Rockies.

Yeah, he says, he’s got the degree in music. Yeah, he plays a ton of instruments, including guitar, drums, trumpet, and keyboard. Yeah, he even did the professional music thing—for 16 years. He produced 25 albums, including a children’s album that won a Parent’s Choice Recommended Award. He recorded four of his own solo CDs, featuring a blend of traditional folk and rock ‘n’ roll. He also played in bands, at weddings, and on television shows. He knows what it’s like driving through the night with a bunch of guys to get to another gig in another city, all for a hundred and twenty bucks.

But, man, did it get old. “Music, geez, it’s such a weird way to make a living,” he says. “The pay is inconsistent. The hours are bizarre. And your professional environment is the place where everyone else is going to get away from work.” So he gave up the touring. He married his wife, Jessica, moved to Monticello, Utah, had three kids—a fourth arrived later—and worked 12 hours a day in a restaurant. At least he was home every night.

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After five years, though, music tapped him on the shoulder once again. Galbo began by teaching a workshop at the Blues & Brews Festival in Telluride. After all, he’d always taught music. He’d even published three instructional guides. While in Telluride, Galbo learned there was no guitar teacher in town. So he started offering private lessons, commuting 125 miles from his Utah home. The more he taught, the more he remembered a long-ago dream: to open a private music school, one that did things a little differently, one that taught kids to love playing music.

So here’s what happens when the universe points you toward your destiny: people appear. They offer part-time teaching jobs. They get you affordable mountain housing. And pretty soon you get the courage to give that long-dormant dream a try—which Galbo did in January 2004 when he hung his shingle for the Rock and Roll Academy, a unique school-within-a-school music program that has seven- to 18-year-old kids playing in rock bands from day one. In a woo-woo kind of coincidence, the movie School of Rock, starring Jack Black, came out as Galbo was prepping to open the Academy. “I was literally painting the studio when I heard about the movie,” Galbo says. Though it may be hard to believe, before that moment he had no idea anything like this existed anywhere else on Earth.

The curriculum would be pure rock ‘n’ roll. Forget emo, hip-hop, death metal, and whatever else kids are Limewiring these days. We’re talking Aerosmith and Steppenwolf and Deep Purple. Classic rock. Their parents’ rock. This being Telluride, where many of those parents are aging baby boomers with dusty stacks of vinyl in their basements, a rock academy wasn’t a tough sell, at least not at first. The kids were totally into it, and so were most of the parents. But some of the grown-ups didn’t think playing in a rock band was the best way to learn music. What about musical notation? What about key signatures and time signatures and learning the difference between a bass and treble clef? Wasn’t that important? No, Galbo told them—not for what he’s doing at the Academy. His approach is to thrust instruments into kids’ hands and let them intuitively figure out how to play music they enjoy. And they always do. “When people saw their children playing two or three instruments in their first concert, the resistance disappeared,” Galbo says. And now, this Saturday, almost four years later, Juxtapoze and 46 other kids will perform, hopefully, for a sellout crowd.

Tuesday night before the concert, the members of Juxtapoze meet at the Academy to rehearse. Walking into the small, warm room, they peel off hats and parkas and unwind long scarves and drop them all into a heap on the floor.

Frances Rogers hops onto the stage first. She’s the drummer, one of the best drummers Galbo has ever worked with, and to prove it he pays her the ultimate girl compliment: “Even 17-year-old boys like to play music with her.” Today, Frances’ hair is streaked pink, although she’s dyed it something like 10 or 15 times because she gets bored with her hair. She’s also gets bored with Hannah Montana, also known as Miley Cyrus, whom she thinks needs to get a life. What she’s definitely not bored with is U2, which is like the biggest band of her life. Frances walks behind the white-and-black Roland drum set and sits on the round, black stool and attempts to push it down, but she’s stick-figure thin and the stool won’t budge. “Frances,” Galbo says, walking up to help her, “ya gotta start eatin’ some cheeseburgers.”

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Next up is Renny—rhymes with penny—Engbring. She twists behind the electric keyboard and starts marching her fingers up and down the keys, instantly lost in her own private world. Her overgrown brown bangs drape her face, giving her the kind of edgy, super-hip look that can intimidate cheerleaders. But then she smiles, and the sweet, quietly confident girl who likes soccer and believes that Dance Dance Revolution was the reason she was born, emerges.

Renny is followed on stage by Marina Marlens, who’s beautiful and blond and worries about the electricity used to power the amplifiers and whether or not she’s contributing to global warming when she ratchets up the volume. She picks up her Gibson SG electric guitar and immediately starts turning the knobs to adjust the sound. Marina’s been home-schooled—or unschooled, as her parents prefer to call it—and she’s the taskmaster who makes everyone else play when they’d rather be goofing off. The way Renny puts it, “Sometimes Marina is like really hyper.”

Last up is Jacqueline Child. Jacqueline is a public school student who likes soccer, acting, and red high-top Converse sneakers. And talk about smiles. The band’s lead singer, Jacqueline has the kind of smile that would make you donate all your money to animals or orphans or a foundation dedicated to the Rolling Stones, which is her mother’s favorite band of all time. Jacqueline says she’d love to be in a real rock ‘n’ roll band someday because she’s not like a genius in math or anything.

Separately, the members of Juxtapoze are kids, like all kids, with their own dreams, goals, and favorite TV shows. But put them together and you get one of the best teen bands Galbo has worked with. Even their friends think they are the best band ever. But they’d rather you not say that because there’s this other girl band at the Academy and they’ve gotten better this year, and Juxtapoze doesn’t want them to feel bad.

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Without Galbo giving any sort of prompt, the girls launch into their set of four songs. First up? “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett. The verdict? Not good.

“Oh my god, that was like so fast.”
“My guitar kept dropping out.”
“I can’t hear Jacqueline.”
“I know. I’m trying.”

Galbo might make a suggestion or two, something like, “don’t be afraid to make a bold mistake,” or “musicians, use your eyes, watch the singers.” But mostly the girls decide for themselves when something sounds wrong and how to fix it.

After the first song, Frances agrees to slow down. Jacqueline starts singing into two microphones. Marina adjusts her amp. And Renny continues to watch her fingers stroll on the keyboard. They move on to “Get Off of My Cloud” by the Rolling Stones; “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn and John; and finally the especially vexing “City of Blinding Lights” by U2, which is driving Marina crazy because she’s playing lead guitar and has to switch between her fingers and her pick, and she doesn’t know where to put the pick when she’s not using it and doesn’t want it to get all germy when she puts it into her mouth.
Along the way, they switch instruments. Jacqueline picks up the bass. Marina sings. Renny comes out from behind the keyboard. But they don’t let Frances leave the drum set, not ever, because they all agree her rhythm is the reason Juxtapoze rocks.

After the third run-through, Galbo asks the girls how they feel about ending their set with “Bad Reputation.” “There’s something cool,” he says, “about ending a set saying you don’t give a damn about your reputation, slamming down the guitars, and marching off stage.”

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Renny stops playing and looks up from the keyboard at him. “But we do care.”
Spend some time with Galbo, watch him interact with the band, watch him tease Marina about her germ obsession and encourage the girls to play through their mistakes, and you’ll learn he’s got an entirely different way of thinking about music and education. But to understand how different Galbo’s approach really is, you have to understand the typical music education in America, which goes something like this: Kid signs up for piano or trumpet or recorder lessons. Kid meets alone with teacher in a soundproof room, learns the notes, goes home, tries to practice, returns to teacher, and does it all over again. Galbo says this approach is like learning to play baseball by taking baseball lessons before ever setting cleats on a field. If the kid is lucky, he might be learning music at a school with a band, and that makes it a lot more fun. But because of the No Child Left Behind Act, fewer kids than ever before have access to quality music programs.

In fact, the Center on Education Policy reports a whopping 44 percent of school districts nationwide have cut time for subjects that aren’t tested under No Child Left Behind, including art and music. But even before NCLB, fewer than half of American kids received a credible music education, says Mike Blakeslee, senior deputy executive director for the National Association of Music Education in Reston, Virginia. “Music education has had its ups and downs,” Blakeslee says, “but in general it hasn’t been good.” (The city of Denver itself is a bit of an anomaly, for in 2003 voters passed a mill levy to fund more arts instruction in the public elementary schools. When compared to the national average, the city’s primary schools seem to be doing quite well, with elementary and middle-school students receiving anywhere from one to 2.5 hours of music instruction per week.) Not only are school music programs in general lacking, but the ones that remain tend to emphasize traditional music, which is something that makes Galbo positively insane.

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Sitting at his desk inside the Academy, Galbo uses his laptop to project photos of his students on the wall. The pictures include seven-year olds with red electric guitars taller than they are, 10-year-olds beating the bejeezus out of drums, and 15-year-olds with closed eyes standing behind microphones and giving it their soulful all. Looking at the photos, Galbo shakes his head. “Don’t ask a kid who’s grown up with his iPod listening to the Jonas Brothers to care about classical or marching band music,” he says. “They don’t care. It’s not part of their culture. And they are not interested in a lecture about why this music is important to them.”

Galbo stops and thinks about what he’s just said, then backs up and says the traditional music approach does work well for a lot of kids, particularly those who have some kind of classical or marching band tradition in their families or communities. But schools aren’t igniting the passion in kids, he insists. “Think about it, how many people do you know who took music lessons as kids who are still playing now?”

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Reflecting on his own experience, Galbo says professional musicians learn the music they love, and they learn it playing together by ear—which is exactly how he teaches his kids. “They do not sit down with some authority figure who tells them to be quiet,” he says. “It’s nonsense—nonsense—and completely takes the joy out of music.”

To show you how easy it is to sit down and start playing without all that fussy instruction, Galbo will place you behind a drum set. He won’t care if you’re the kind of person who freaks out when you have to sing “Happy Birthday” at a party. He’ll shove a drumstick in your left hand, a drumstick in your right, he’ll get both your legs moving, and within two minutes you’ll be pounding out the rhythm for some cool song you know you’ve heard but can’t quite place. Then he’ll ask a spare 11-year-old to join you on the keyboards, and together you’ll be playing something that sounds pretty darn good, if you do say so yourself. And as the sticks hit the skins in quarter and eighth and sixteenth notes, you’ll find yourself thinking that not only is rock school a good idea for kids, but it’d be dandy if there were something similar for grown-ups.

It’s now two days before the concert, and Galbo says if the girls from Juxtapoze have any hope of becoming real rock stars, they’ve got to get used to the media. That’s why he’s arranged for them to appear live on KOTO, Telluride’s local public radio station, a station that—in true don’t-mess-with-us mountain town fashion—doesn’t accept any commercial advertising or corporate underwriting. Its slogan: “A rare medium, well done.”

While waiting for the girls to arrive, Galbo sits inside a small room lined with plywood shelves packed with compact discs and record albums. Today, like almost every other day, he’s wearing jeans and an untucked but well-pressed button-down shirt, a look that, like Galbo himself, flouts convention while also respecting it. He says he arranges interviews like this because he wants his bands to have the full-on rock star experience—not because they’re planning to actually become famous, but because it’s fun and builds confidence and is a cool thing to do. In addition to press interviews, he photographs the bands for marquee posters. He gives them laminated backstage passes. Once, he even arranged for an Academy band to open at a Telluride concert for Shawn Colvin, and he has paid the band members 20 bucks in cash after gigs.

But if he’s being totally honest about the reason for the interview, Galbo does have another agenda: He wants to fill those seats Saturday night, and now that the Jeep King of the Mountain Ski Tour has descended on Telluride, the likelihood of a sellout crowd is diminishing rapidly. And Galbo’s annoyed. Especially since Jeep called him and offered him a thousand bucks to give up his space at the Sheridan Opera House. Jeep had already taken over the other venues in Telluride: the Bubble Lounge, the New Sheridan Bar, the Last Dollar Saloon—even Main Street will be closed for three hours Saturday night for a Jeep street party. But that’s how it goes in this business, Galbo says. The big corporate entities muscle their way in and push out the independents.

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Galbo’s trying to be Aquarian about it. He’s trying to be tolerant and remember that the music business is fraught with complications, that few gigs come off without a hitch. “But, man, this Saturday’s concert is for the kids,” he says. Sure, the Rock and Roll Academy had to pay for the space at the Opera House, and if ticket sales don’t cover the rent, Galbo’s out some cash. But that’s not what matters here, he insists. Not in the long run. Not in the lives of these young people.

Galbo looks up as the girls from Juxtapose stomp up the stairs into the studio. “You ladies ready?” he asks.

Taking their cue from a young, cool-dude disc jockey, the girls position themselves behind four microphones. Together, they look like any other who-gives-a-flip band of musicians getting ready for the media spotlight. Frances is wearing a fur-lined bomber hat; Marina, an oversized white T-shirt; Renny, a huge gray sweatshirt frayed at the edges. And the girls are all giggling, as if they can’t believe the eye-rolling silliness associated with yet another interview. But when the red light clicks on and the host asks the girls to introduce themselves, their facade of cool crumbles.

“Uh, I’m Renny, and I’m in seventh grade.”

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And so it goes for the next 15 minutes. The girls um and ah and use the word “like” in an impressive number of ways. The host, who isn’t blessed with interviewing skills, doesn’t do much to help. Finally, Galbo steps behind a microphone, takes hold of the interview, and tells the citizens of Telluride about the amazing talent assembled under the name Juxtapoze and why Saturday’s concert is this weekend’s go-to gig.

After the interview ends, the girls make their way back to the Academy for their last rehearsal before Saturday’s concert, and it immediately becomes clear their problems are far from over. Renny plays one song an octave too high on the keyboards. Jacqueline forgets the lyrics to “Young Folks.” “Sorry,” she says, “I was thinking about my homework.” Marina is worried about almost everything associated with the U2 song: the melody, the transitions, the Chapstick that gets all over her pick when she puts it into her mouth.

“Can we do it again?” she asks.
“No,” Frances says. “We’re gonna wear it out.”

Watching them, the girls look like your average clique of 13-year-olds. But they’re not. Not really. They live in a town where the arts play a predominant role, not only in the schools but also in the community overall. Telluride is known across the country for its bluegrass, blues, jazz, chamber music, and film festivals. Here, the arts—and most especially music—are not the cherry on top, they’re an integral part of daily life, and Juxtapoze and the other Academy bands benefit from broad public support. Where else do 13-year-old musicians get 20 minutes of live airtime on the radio?

Plus, the girls are lucky to have parents that can afford quality music instruction and understand its value. Grace Engbring, who has three children—including Renny—enrolled at the Rock Academy, says that playing in a band can be a magical elixir, especially when it comes to kids’ social development. “It’s amazing,” she says, “in only a few months you see the kids learning how to get along, share their ideas, and be critical with one another.”

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Mention this conversation to Galbo and he’ll smile as if you’ve just learned one of his cherished secrets. “It’s happens all the time,” he says. The shy kid turns out to be a great drummer, and pretty soon the cool kids start looking at him differently.

While the girls practice, Galbo projects a photo of the band onto a large screen. It’s the same photo that will be featured on marquee posters outside of the Opera House Saturday night. When the girls notice their photograph, the music clanks to a stop.

“Look at how red our faces are!”
“Yeah, let’s see the other bands.”
“Their faces aren’t all red. We look weird. Can you Photoshop this?”
Galbo lets the girls’ vanity unwind for a few minutes and then gently calls them back to practice.
“Girls,” he says. “Remember, the concert is in two days.”
Rock ‘n’ roll is by its very nature rebellious. When it blasted onto the scene in the late ’50s, buttoned-down, alarm-clock-setting Americans had no idea what hit them. The music was loud, the hair was long, singers screamed, and you couldn’t dance to it, at least not the way Arthur Murray and his cohorts wanted you to. On top of all that, rock lyrics discussed things you just didn’t. Things like war and cocaine and c’mon, c’mon, c’mon…now touch me baby.

The rebellion inherent in rock is essential to kids, Galbo says, because kids have a hardwired need to push limits. “They’ve got to explore the boundaries of their culture, their families, and their communities,” he explains. “You know that line, ‘Just say no?’ How about ‘Just say yes?’ How about just say yes to what kids actually need? Kids are going to experiment with drugs and drinking no matter what you do. But at the Academy, kids can have a powerful, authentic, soulful experience that is centered on their peers, and they don’t have to be high or drunk to do it.”

If the number of rock music programs opening across the country is any indication, it seems Galbo is not the only one who’s caught on to the power of rock ‘n’ roll as a way for kids to rebel safely through musical expression. Paul Green, whose story inspired the movie School of Rock, opened his first after-school music program, the Paul Green School of Rock Music, in 1998. Today, he has 44 existing or planned franchises across the country, including one that opened in Denver earlier this year. Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Band guitarist and Sopranos star, has also jumped on the rock bandwagon through the creation of the nonprofit Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. Starting this school year, his foundation will launch a middle- and high-school curriculum designed to teach the history of rock ‘n’ roll from its roots to the present. There are also a variety of summer music camps across the country that offer rock instruction, including DayJams, Power Chord Academy, and the Dog House Music Rock & Roll Camp in Lafayette, Colorado.

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Galbo’s Academy—and the franchise he’s working to develop—differs from the other models in that his uses a school-within-a-school approach. The Rock and Roll Academy is located inside the private Telluride Mountain School, which paid for the musical instruments and construction of the Academy’s soundproof rehearsal room. During school hours, Galbo, as the staff music instructor, teaches rock music to all grades. Then, after school, he opens up the Academy to kids throughout the community. A semester’s tuition for the after-school program runs $745 per student.

Galbo sees his model as a win-win-win. Kids have access to the kind of music education they wouldn’t otherwise. Schools, which take a cut of after-school tuition fees, have a new revenue source and can keep music education alive. And the franchisee, ideally a music educator like Galbo, makes money managing the school.

Although his marketing efforts began only last year, Galbo is already talking with three private schools, including one in Cleveland, that are interested in the Rock Academy model. And although he’s currently focused on private schools because they are more flexible in their programming, Galbo ultimately would like to use his school-within-a-school approach to modernize public music education in the United States.

Early Saturday evening, from the gondola above town, Telluride—with its tidy houses and twinkling lights and smoking chimneys—looks like a Christmas mantel display of a Victorian village. The effect doesn’t diminish when you step off the gondola, walk through the snowy streets smelling of wood smoke, and arrive at the Sheridan Opera House. Built in 1913, the Opera House has been, at various times, a drinking place, a dance hall, and host to a series of vaudeville acts. Even today you can see its history in the gold banisters, deep green carpeting, and hard wooden seats. The whole place evokes a pleasant hot-cider sense of nostalgia you’d be tempted to succumb to if it weren’t for the buzz and screech of the amps, the photos of Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain being projected above the stage, and the fact that Mark Galbo has just jumped up and started screaming into the microphone for everyone to “Give it up for the Rock and Roll Academy Winter Tour!!!”

Audience members start to clap and hoot and whistle, and tonight it’s clearly a family crowd. Pairs of parents. Clumps of teenagers. Little kids kneeling on their seats in order to see better. The first five rows of seats have been removed to allow the more courageous band members to dive into the ad hoc mosh pit—but only if they’ve followed Galbo’s rule, which is to arrange ahead of time for someone to catch them.

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The crowd is loud and enthusiastic, but, alas, not as loud and enthusiastic as it probably could be. About a third of the seats are empty, and the mosh pit isn’t jammed with screaming, standing-room-only fans as Juxtapoze hoped it would be. Instead, there are only about seven kids standing on the hardwood floor in front of the stage. It appears events related to the Jeep ski tour have succeeded in stealing the audience.

You’d never know it looking at Galbo. He introduces each band with manic enthusiasm. “Let’s give it up for Ordinary Chaos! Twisted Nation! Formula Forty! Lane Smith! SARZ! Pink Slip! The Beatless! Red Wolf! Grenade! And Jux-ta-POZE!” Each band, in turn, takes the stage to boom out songs like “Cat Scratch Fever” and “Born to be Wild.” A seven-year-old guitar player gets a blister on his thumb, and Galbo has to escort him from the stage. A teenage head-banger whips his long blond hair like a character in some video game. The webmaster who’s recording the show for a live webcast confesses this is the strangest thing he’s ever seen. But through it all the crowd does, indeed, give it up.

Perhaps more importantly, the musicians themselves do, especially the gals from Juxtapoze. Appearing next to last, the four girls take the stage with smiles they can barely contain. They decided ahead of time not to wear anything special, because they think matching clothes are kind of weird and they’d never be able to agree on what to wear anyway. So they perform in their normal everyday clothes, but they don’t give a normal everyday performance.

During dress rehearsal earlier today, Marina’s guitar somehow became unplugged from the amp, Frances was drumming too fast, and Jacqueline was having a hard time timing her lyrics. Mustering all the bravado they could, they kept playing, just as Galbo trained them to. But the calamities in rehearsal made them nervous for tonight’s performance.

Watching them now, you’d never know it. You can clearly hear every word Jacqueline sings—and she remembers all of them. Marina nails the guitar part on “City of Blinding Light,” switching between pick and finger seemingly at ease. Renny jumps from keyboards to vocals to bass, always in time, always in tune. And Frances, after Galbo once again adjusts the seat for her, drums under the blue and yellow lights as if she were the one who invented drumming thousands of years ago. The band, simply, is really, really good.

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And as you listen, you think of something Galbo said the other night: “Kids are ready to do something magnificent every day.”

Sure, it would have been nice to have had the killer crowd. The Hollywood ending would have thousands of people on their feet cheering for Juxtapoze, but this is the music business and some gigs are just better than others. After the buzz of performing, the girls will go back to their lives, to school, to the drama of being a teenager. And, like other dedicated musicians, they’ll go back to their instruments and begin preparing for the next gig.

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