It's not unusual for hundreds of people to crowd around the stage at the Crystal Ballroom, bouncing up and down on the venue's famed "floating" dance floor and cheering on a series of bands playing rock songs both old and new. It is unusual, though, for each of those four bands to be made up of kids under the age of 18.
It's even more unusual to have a thin, fast-talking 14-year-old who spent three months juggling homework and band rehearsals in his parents' basement, lining up sponsors, doing TV and radio interviews, and selling tickets to friends and family for a charity concert.
The concert was called KidsRock4Kids, and last Friday it raised more than $6,000 for Mercy Corps' efforts to provide education, shelter and food to children around the world. The young man behind it all is Eli Hirsch, a freshman at a small community school in Portland.
"This idea was inspired by seeing the movie Slumdog Millionaire," Hirsch said, hiding out backstage while dozens of people made their way into the venue. "I had spent so much of last year getting so politically involved, working for President Obama's campaign, but seeing that movie and seeing the plight of the kids in India, it got me to thinking, 'What can I do from here?'"
What he did was organize a show where all-kid rock bands — including the group Hirsch fronts, Blind Einstein — would play for their peers in an effort to not only raise funds and awareness for impoverished children but also to inspire other kids to take up an instrument or a cause of their own.
"I really want other kids to say, 'Get me in on this!'," says Hirsch, who is already formulating plans for the next KidsRock4Kids benefit. "I mean, we did it! My band has only been together like five months and we're playing the Crystal Ballroom! It's beyond exciting."
Hirsch was not alone in this campaign, though. He worked closely with David Ellman, an erstwhile software developer who helps promote Still Pending, a virtuosic rock trio that features his 13-year-old son Grant on drums. Together, Eli and David picked Mercy Corps as the event's beneficiary.
"We were looking for something that was India-specific and that worked with children, and Mercy Corps fit the bill," Ellman said, loading up his camcorder with a fresh tape. "And the fact that they are local and super efficient with their funds just helped make the decision that much easier."
Mercy Corps works to nurture and shelter children around the world, with programs that range from rebuilding agricultural high schools in Afghanistan to running sports-as-therapy programs that aim to heal emotional wounds of young earthquake survivors in Peru.
In addition to the nearly $6,000 the KidsRock4Kids team raised through ticket sales, they collected another $450 selling raffle tickets. The grand prize: a guitar donated by Tigard Music and signed by members of one of Portland's most famous bands, The Decemberists. They also sold a bunch of t-shirts and CDs, the proceeds of which also went to Mercy Corps.
"When we were making publicity calls, we spoke with Terry Currier at Music Millennium and he mentioned that the Decemberists were going to be in the store promoting their new CD," Ellman explained. "We contacted them and asked if they’d sign the guitar. They agreed and Eli took the guitar to the store to have it signed. It was just great timing."
As exciting as the hope of winning a prized piece of music memorabilia was for the audience, the real thrills came when each band played. The evening included a set by Social Appetite, a indie rock quartet that featured the only female performer of the evening (drummer Iris Hehn) as well as a bassist, Grant Stringer, who played while leaning on a thick cast earned in a skiing accident; The Vibrations, a band made up of four brothers, including 4-year-old Elisha Henig, who danced, played percussion and even sang lead on a pair of tunes; and Blind Einstein, who played an impassioned set featuring a politically-charged song, "Streets Of The World," inspired by Slumdog.
Like any great rock concert, the biggest response from the crowd — a more than 700-person strong mix of kids from toddlers to high school seniors, along with their parents — came for the closing act, Still Pending. The trio wowed the crowd with spot-on versions of Led Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy classics, topped off with playing that belied the tender age of the players (singer/guitarist Reed Stutz is a mere 13 years old).
As easy as it was to get caught up in the excitement of the performances, it was even easier to tap into Eli's infectious energy as he bounced around the venue making sure everything — from the merchandise booth hawking t-shirts and CDs of the bands to the screen running a slideshow of pictures of children from around the world — was in place.
"I don't know where he gets it from," says Eli's dad, Gary, who looked positively awestruck at what his young son had accomplished. "He is coming from a really good place though. He always says, 'Life's too short so you might as well help out as much as you can while you're here.'"
For all the children from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe who might see their lives improved by Eli's hard work, that's sure to be music to their ears.