Last Friday evening two dozen kids between the ages of 7 and 15 milled around nervously in front of the stage in the auditorium at Oswego East High School. They were VIPs, hanging out in a reserved section that had been roped off with actual rope, while 350 other kids filled up the stadium seating. They'd all come to see Black Wire, an up-and-coming postpunk trio from Leeds, England, and for most of them this was their first show. When front man Dan Wilson asked at the beginning of the band's set, "Who here has ever been to a concert before?" six little hands went up.
One of the hands belonged to Gia Muzzalupo, a ten-year-old VIP who came with her three best friends. "I saw Rascal Flatts this summer," she said later. "I'm here because my friend's mom runs the label that put out Black Wire. I've never heard them before, but I know it'll be good 'cause it's rock 'n' roll. I'm really excited--I love rock 'n' roll. I'm in a band too. We're called Hot Goth Chicks. We're a mix of rap, hip-hop, and rock 'n' roll. I'm the lead singer."
This was Black Wire's first U.S. tour, a short jaunt with stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Oswego, the home base of the band's U.S. manager, Bjorn Forsell. Along with an old friend, Meredith Wittich, Forsell started Giant Pecker Records, which released the band's self-titled debut CD stateside on Tuesday. "I just thought it would be cool to expose the kids to a band that's well on its way to breaking," Forsell said. "Most of them had never seen a concert, and those who had, it was at Rosemont Horizon. Meredith and I both have kids, and it's not like we can take them to shows at the Empty Bottle." Forsell, 36, who has previously worked as a studio engineer and as a guitar tech for the Cardigans and the Hives, discovered Black Wire through their debut seven-inch, and signed on to work with the band after seeing them a few times in England. Wittich, 34, who has no previous experience in the music business, left her job as a science teacher at Oswego High six months ago to work on the label full-time.
Black Wire formed in 2003 and their first single, "Attack Attack Attack," was named an NME single of the week in April 2004. Their second, "Hard to Love, Easy to Lay," cracked the UK Top 75 singles chart the first week of its release the following December, and they've spent the last year touring in support of their first full-length, opening for bands like the Kaiser Chiefs and the Arctic Monkeys. Playing a high school was a first for them. "We've never played an all-ages show before," said Wilson, 23. "Generally, we just play to drunk old people. It was cool to play to people who weren't jaded, people who were just happy to be out of the house with something to do."
Oswego East's auditorium, which features an elaborate professional lighting rig and an unbelievably loud sound system, is frequently rented for public events, according to the school's theater manager, Todd Mielcarz. "We mostly just get recitals in here," he said. "This kind of show, a punk band, that's a pretty big deal for us in a presenting season. Our main concern is safety. We're keeping the VIP roped off so people don't rush the stage. I don't think they will." But physical safety wasn't the only concern. Though Forsell had submitted copies of Black Wire's album, along with T-shirts and posters, to the school's administrators for approval several months earlier, it wasn't until the day before the concert that objections were raised. Several parents took issue with the title "Hard to Love, Easy to Lay" and also with the explicitness of Forsell's label name. In order for the concert to go off as planned, "Giant Pecker" had to be blacked out from all posters and promotional materials, no merchandise could be sold, and the band had not only to agree not to play "Hard to Love," but to not say the word lay at all.
The audience, a total of 420 people including guests and chaperones, ran the gamut from JV basketball cheerleaders (still in uniform) who had never heard the band to serious fans like 15-year-old Charise Walters, who normally does sound for the theater but tonight was working as a runner for the band's soundman. "I got into the band about a year ago," she said. "I heard about them from family in England, actually. It's really cool that they are actually playing my high school." Other kids took fashion cues from pictures they'd seen of people at concerts. One boy wore a dark green wool suit he'd borrowed from his dad, which was five or six sizes too big for him. Another had on a shirt that simply read reggae under his letter jacket. There were fur coats and Zeppelin T-shirts and sunglasses worn indoors. Gia Muzzalupo and her friends had spent all week planning their outfits over the phone. "We have to dress attractive," she said. "What if we want to marry someone in the band?"
Once the house music--live Warren Zevon--was cut and the lights went down, the VIP rope was moot. Black Wire entered to high-pitched screaming, the kids rushed the stage, and the screaming continued throughout a well-honed, Clash-inspired half-hour set. The kids screamed when the band danced. They screamed for guitar solos. A group of girls from Waubonsie Valley High School screamed "I love you!" every time Wilson neared the lip of the stage. They screamed when he kicked a water bottle and when he chewed the banana-flavored gum that had been thrown onstage. They screamed when he announced before the band's second song, "This one's about London." They imitated his moves: pogoing, rock-steady ska dancing, throwing arms to the beat. Wilson, clearly amused, had to catch himself in the middle of his standard in-between-song banter, stopping after he began to thank the kids for "coming out tonight."
As their their set progressed the band never once said the word lay, although fuck was uttered twice: once accidentally by Wilson, and once quite intentionally by an eager young man who grabbed the mike and cussed a female teacher. Then for their final song, in spite of their promise, they launched into "Hard to Love." Wilson began pulling audience members up onto the stage, who in turn pulled up their friends, and by the song's second chorus, almost the entire audience was bouncing around up there, jostling for spots next to band members and screaming into the microphones. Eventually Wilson was squeezed off, and as his band finished the song, he watched the kids.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrea Bauer.