August 29, 2008

‘Guitar Hero’ Challenge Rocks Church Festivals

By Daveen Rae Kurutz

The stage is fit for a rock star, with bright lights and the opening strains of The Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black" pounding from the speakers.

But it isn't Mick Jagger taking the stage. Instead, teens and tweens emulate the classic rock icon -- no talent required -- at summer church festivals through The Rock Star Challenge.

Based on the hit video game "Guitar Hero III," the competition is designed to attract teens -- often a difficult draw for church events. And it's working. Events draw from 50 to 150 competitors.

"We decided, 'Hey, we'll give this one a shot,' " said Ed Palmer, a festival chairman for Holy Trinity Church in McKees Rocks. "It has a lot of buzz going on about it, and it's very appealing to us."

Developed by Fun Services, a festival supplier based in Green Tree and Jeannette, the competition travels to weekend festivals, said owner Bobby LaVella. The idea came from his 14-year-old son's desire to participate in a competition, but he was too young to enter.

"I didn't sleep for two or three weeks, trying to come up with something," LaVella said. "We're trying to meld the game with the atmosphere of a night club. A lot of young kids obviously don't have a chance to do that, so for them, to have a chance to go up on a stage and have spotlight on them and stuff, it's huge."

The concept is simple: Contestants use a specially designed guitar controller to "play" rock songs. They don't strum strings or press frets; they strike color-coded buttons along the neck of the guitar while strumming a bar in time with colored "notes" shown on a screen.

Both the game and the traveling competition are a hit with teens, said Spahr Schmitt, who runs the show on site. He has overseen about 20 shows since late May and will accompany a mall tour that includes stops at Monroeville and Westmoreland malls, starting in September. Proceeds from the mall tour benefit Make-A-Wish, and winners will receive an electric guitar.

Schmitt said he hopes the prize might encourage players to expand from video game superstardom to an appreciation for the actual instrument that spawned the popular game series.

"There are some kids that are just amazing, and they enjoy the opportunity to play in front of other people," said Schmitt, 38, of Swissvale. "It's always a thrill to be able to perform, and we can help these kids get a taste of the performance side of things. Hopefully there will be a connection to play the real guitar. A lot of kids tell us they start because of (Guitar Hero III)."

Palmer, a self-described video game junkie, said kids are attracted to the competitive nature of the game and the tour.

"It gives them an outlet to play and go head-to-head with each other, kind of like a sporting event would be, but without the need for the athleticism," said Palmer, 40, of Robinson. "I kind of equate it to live karaoke being popular, despite no one being able to sing."

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