10 Years of Rocking Education

Writer Amanda Christmann
Photography Courtesy of David Cottle

On a matte black stage lit by purple wash lights, a vocalist works a microphone while a drummer and a bass guitarist pour rhythm and harmony into hazy air. Laser lights flash and strobe, and giant speakers send notes and beats to a crowd of hundreds.

This is no ordinary rock concert. It may have the sound and feel of a high-end venue, but these are young performers who are wowing their fans for a great cause.

Since 2009, Rock the District has given talented young musicians an opportunity to take the stage to showcase their impressive skills and raise money for Cave Creek Unified Education Foundation.

Thanks to their efforts, more than $200,000 in grants has been awarded to district classrooms to pay for technology, international study, health and wellness and, of course, the arts.

This year’s 10-year anniversary bash will be nothing short of extraordinary. It’s the first concert to last two nights and will be held April 12 and 13 at Carefree Desert Gardens. Tickets, which are expected to sell out, go on sale February 25.

Not only will this festival feature the best of CCUSD’s young talent, but also crowd favorites from the past—some of whom have gone on to become recording artists.

Among the alumni is rising retro country rock band, Homestretch. Made up of Cactus Shadows graduate Chance McLaughlin, and bandmates Spencer Byrne, Dale James, and Jake Powers, all currently attending high school. Homestretch was originally started with band members Grady Byrne and Matt Ward, who have since graduated, but who helped the band cut its teeth. The new band finished third in Alice Cooper’s “Proof is in the Pudding” this year.

Promise to Myself, a band started by local natives Karl Nagy, Zack Bruge, Brad Stockton and Tony Galvan, will be among the performers back on the Rock the District stage, too. The fab four have toured with Vans Warped Tour and played on stages like Hollywood’s The World Famous Whisky a Go Go.

Other local star performers include Cali Rodi, Ryan Sims, and country crooners Chad Freeman and Redline.

Each year, the level of talent showcased by Rock the District earns resounding praise. In fact, for those who don’t have the opportunity to spend time with some of our youngest local musicians, it’s often completely unexpected.

Cave Creek Unified Education Foundation president Sarah Byrne is no longer surprised.

“We have music performers who now attend Berkley, Thornton School of Music at USC, and we have kids who are performers at Belmont University in Nashville. Some of the bands who have performed at Rock the District are still performing today. It’s great for us to see the progress.”

To earn a spot on the stage, each musician must audition. Some, like Homestretch’s Chance McLaughlin, began performing as middle schoolers, gaining fans and upping their game each year they appear on the Rock the District stage.

“Not everyone will make it into the show, and that’s okay. It’s part of the process,” said Byrne.

Those who do make the schedule of performers have the added encouragement of spending a day with music industry mentors, including musicians, record producers and audio engineers, who give them tips on how to improve their performance and connect with the crowd.

“They’re there to make the musicians feel great about what they’re going to perform at Rock the District,” Byrne said. “These kids are giving us so much through what they are doing on stage. That mentoring piece is one of the best things we can do to give them something back.”

Rock the District was the brainchild of Melissa Nelson, who was a Cactus Shadows High School student over 10 years ago when the Cave Creek Unified Education Foundation was founded. She came up with the idea of having a concert of live performances to highlight the talents of many of her friends and to raise money for arts programs in her school. After her graduation, Melissa went to college and the foundation took over the event.

This year, Melissa will be returning to see the legacy of the dream she envisioned so many years ago.

Rock the District, in many ways, has grown to become an endowment to an entire generation of CCUSD students. Last year’s concert paid for iPads, culinary arts supplies, pickle ball equipment, computer grants and music grants. Rock the District funding has also been credited for being a significant part of the return of the high school marching band.

“The grants vary from year to year, and are distributed to every school in district,” Byrne explained. “It would be hard for me to find a kid in the school district who hasn’t benefited from a grant provided by Rock the District.”

It’s been a rockin’ idea, and one that the foundation wants to share with other districts. Next year, if all goes well, Rock the District will spread to schools throughout the Valley.

“As a foundation, we’d like to combine efforts for a much bigger concert to benefit more kids in 2020. I think the time is right,” said Byrne.

In the meantime, volunteers and show producer Stacy Nupoff are gearing up for an expected 1,500 people at this year’s two-night event.

“It’s going to be our most exciting event yet!” said Byrne. “It’s a great way to support our schools and support our students.”

Rock the District
April 12, 13 | 6–9 p.m. (Gates open at 5 p.m.) | Carefree Desert Gardens, 101 Easy St., Carefree | $20–$75 (discounts available for teachers and students) | rockthedistrict.net

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