- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

Who would have thought Southern Maryland would yield, on top of all that tobacco, a bumper crop of teen-targeted punk bands?

Waldorf’s Good Charlotte has led the way, and Wakefield, from Mechanicsville, is hard on their heels, flashing that coveted marking of teen-pop street-cred: a hit video on MTV’s “Total Request Live.”

The clip plugs the band’s first single, a song called “Say You Will,” and coming as it does from guys in their late teens and early 20s, it’s about as tender and fellow-feeling as you could ever hope: “Please would you just calm down / Maybe we can talk this out / You haven’t even heard my side of the story / She was a big mistake.”

“Today sucked / You knew it would / Yesterday and tomorrow’s / not looking good,” the band sings on “Positive Reinforcement.” “I just don’t know what to say / You’re psychotic,” goes “Un-Sweet Sixteen.”

This kind of moody, hormone-explosion doggerel abounds on Wakefield’s major-label debut, “American Made,” whose cover is a rascally nod to the band’s small-town roots: a slapdash white picket fence, a pile of trash, crumpled beer cans and a crabby patch of lawn.

“There are so many bands now in our county” — St. Mary’s, that is — “I don’t even know the half of them,” says Wakefield’s lead singer and guitarist, 19-year-old Ryan Escolopio, on the phone from Chicago, where the band played the House of Blues Thursday night along with Reel Big Fish and Zebrahead.

It wasn’t so long ago that the two punk-pop mainstays were the only game in town — well, not just a single town, but a web of small rural communities in Charles and St. Mary’s counties, 20 or so miles south of the District.

In fact, Wakefield’s drummer, Aaron Escolopio, 23, used to play with Good Charlotte before joining with his brother, Ryan, and cousin, bassist Mike Schoolden. (Fronted by twin brothers, Benji and Joel Madden, Good Charlotte is also a family affair.)

The brothers Escolopio come from a musical brood. Their parents played bars in a band that covered Journey, Chicago and other ‘70s FM-rock staples from whom their sons gained an appreciation of big-sky harmony vocals in addition to assertive guitar riffing.

“When I was 5 and 6 years old, I would always go to bars,” Mr. Escolopio says. “I would always go to their practices and their shows. We basically grew up on Queen and REO Speedwagon and bands like that.” He mispronounces REO as “Rio” — a sign, maybe, of how distant the ‘70s have become.

But this is a band that used to call itself Soar when it meant Sore. Mr. Escolopio says he dropped out of school when he was 16. It was rock star or bust, a headstrong resolve that, in sports, has created similar all-or-nothing scenarios that lure ever-younger athletes into professional careers.

“I quit school in eleventh grade, and we got signed,” he says. “This is what I’ve wanted to do my whole life.” What about a life outside the band? “As long as I keep touring and stay on the road, I don’t care.”

He says his parents, who own a small recording studio, are fully supportive of their sons’ enterprise and lent the band time to cut a few demos that quickly won the attention of Arista Records (the label with which the band eventually signed, after a brief stint with Lava Records).

“They were kind of hoping this took off because I probably wasn’t gonna do anything else,” he says, recalling his days of whiling away classes asleep at his desk in Chopticon High School, thinking only of woodshedding in the garage with his band buddies, including Wakefield guitarist-vocalist J.D. Tennyson, with whom he has played in various bands since age 13.

“If this didn’t pan out, they knew I was going to live off them for the rest of my life,” he adds, not quite jokingly.

The disaffected teen has been a popular figure for as long as juveniles have had cash of their own and the free time to spend it. In the ante-“West Side Story” world, teens had to pitch in with family income. However, at some point of post-World War II affluence, they became an independent, money-wielding bloc, a free-floating demographic of their own.

Today, tweens and teens are flocking to such bands as Wakefield, Good Charlotte and, lest we forget the 80-pound elephant, Canada’s Avril Lavigne, none of whom is tapping into anything particularly new with stylized servings of post-punk pop.

What might be new — relatively recent, at least — is how sweet and syrupy their disaffection has become. One need only recall how young the Escolopios are to realize why that’s so: As filtered down to them, punk music is no longer an anti-establishment pose; it’s just chirpy, power-chorded production value fused with sulky attitudes, without all the sociopolitical or anarchic ranting and raving.

Mr. Escolopio cites, for example, bands such as Green Day and Blink-182 as influences — hardly the nose-thumbing stuff of punk’s late-‘70s British heyday and such urban-based protest bands as the Clash.

As improbable as it would have seemed, say, 20 years ago, Wakefield cut its punk fangs in the Amish country of Southern Maryland — at places like My Brother’s Place in Waldorf, a Christian coffeehouse and pool hall.

“It’s kinda weird,” Mr. Escolopio says of playing so many gigs in a space devoted to straight-edge Christian ministry.

But that’s modern-day punk rock — call it post-post-punk, a G-rated genre that’s now fit for the Nickelodeon TV network.

While there are a number of bands in Southern Maryland seeking to follow in Good Charlotte’s and Wakefield’s train, Mr. Escolopio says his band is already itching to grow up.

The material the band is writing now is not quite as “poppy,” he says. Relentless traveling — and all the gigging, conviviality and late-night hotel-room collaboration that come with it — is tugging the band in the direction of harder-edged rock music. “I think the next album is gonna be a lot more mature.”

That’s what happens, one supposes, when young people leave home. Any old place with white picket fences, not just Southern Maryland.

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