Sedalia has it’s very own Dewey Finn. Granted, unlike Jack Black’s character in the 2003 movie “School of Rock,” Justin Lawson didn’t infiltrate a public school pretending to be a music teacher. He’s a legitimate teacher at Wilken Music Company in Sedalia. But like Mr. Finn, he has a passion for teaching youths how to raise the Goblet of Rock.
“Well, they needed some venues to play at and to learn to play together,” said the modest Lawson, who — in addition to his one-on-one lessons — teaches students how to play in bands. “That’s always the next step. You know, you teach them for a while, but they just need that extra step and the opportunity to play. Because there’s not that many opportunities to play in Sedalia.”
The 28-year-old Sedalian’s latest venture was Saturday’s “Rock the Day Away” at Centennial Park, a Relay for Life fundraiser that featured 10 acts, all with local roots. It comes on the heels of “Making the Band,” a showcase of local talent he’s put on since 2008 (the next one is slated for July 21 at the Liberty Center) and the Battle of the Bands, which debuted in December at the Liberty Center and is expected to become an annual event.
All of Saturday’s musicians were connected to Lawson in some way; in fact, “Rock the Day Away” co-organizer Terry Cockrell referred to the lineup as “Justin’s bands.” Some of the musicians are currently taking lessons from Lawson; others are former students.
“He’s like a big brother to me,” said Vandal Vandal guitarist David Palmer, 22, who took lessons from Lawson when he was 15. “Yeah, he helped me along the way, absolutely. When everyone else in your life is saying ‘This music thing, you’re not going to make money from it, you’re not gonna have a good time,’ he encouraged me.”
Even non-Sedalia musicians admire Lawson.
“I think he’s doing an outstanding job for the local music scene,” said Josh Lee, of California, Mo., who plays bass for Suitup!, which won December’s Battle of the Bands under the name Shock Wave. “He’s trying to get a lot of kids involved, and it’s fun. He does a great job getting everyone together.”
Lawson not only teaches budding musicians and organizes events, he also plays. He’s currently a member of a rock band, a blues band and a country band. Plus, he sits in with his students’ bands when needed. On Saturday, he broke out AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” and a blues number while backed by students who hadn’t found a lead singer yet.
“That was just for today,” Lawson said. “They’re still working on getting ready for ‘Making the Band.’ We’re just trying to get local talent out here — young musicians, older musicians.”
The first half of Saturday’s 10-act lineup was mostly teenagers; one of the most polished of those bands was Sincere Apologies, which included “Making the Band” veteran Geoffrey Hammond, 19, a Smith-Cotton graduate. The lead singer of the three-piece is Alexa Sproles, 16, of Smith-Cotton, who is taking blues and acoustic guitar lessons from Lawson.
Somewhat surprisingly, Sproles — who sang an original arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” among the band’s set — isn’t taking choir classes at the school and she doesn’t plan to compete in S-C Idol, which her older sister Makenzie won last fall.
“I’m rebellious, I guess,” Sproles said. “I just don’t like choir very much. My dad gave us voice lessons when I was little. I don’t like big crowds, so there’s no point in embarrassing myself at my school.”
Later in the afternoon, the more established acts (in the sense that they’ve played a gig or two before this) took the stage. Hardcore rock and metal dominated the stage, from Gate 3 to Reincarnate the Reason to Suitup! to La Monte-based Prometheus.
The Warrensburg/Sedalia four-piece Vandal Vandal closed out the day. Although also hard-edged, the band was notably more hook-laden and melodic than its predecessors, which focused on tight, hard-charging instruments.
“We’re a little punk rock, a little alternative indie style — Pixies, Libertines, Smashing Pumpkins, that’s where we get our influences,” said lead singer Sharaden Staten, 21, who attends State Fair Community College.
“We think about hooks, for sure,” said Palmer, a University of Central Missouri student. “(The other bands) are all friends of ours and awesome people, but it’s a little awkward being the weird kid who’s into The Pixies and The Flaming Lips. It’d be nice to be like everybody else, but that’s just not the way it is. We want to find that fine line between making good music and melodies and harmonies, and the raging Led Zeppelin drums, and guitar too.”
Vandal Vandal is among “Justin’s bands” that have branched off into booking its own shows (next up: May 23 at the ABC Building in Warrensburg). Members of Reincarnate the Reason, Suitup! and Prometheus all talked about bookings, demo discs and Facebook pages, too.
It seems Lawson hasn’t merely taught young musicians about the art form; he’s also inspired them to grow the music scene by playing regularly and making music available to fans.
“They’re all getting there,” Lawson said of his students and Saturday’s bands in general. “I’m very proud of all of them. My goal is just to get people out there and get them to have a good time. Because deep down, when you play, you want to play in front of other people. So why not have a good time when you have the opportunity?”