Show will rock the house, and your TV

April 14, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

It's a Friday night at Baltimore's Hard Rock Cafe, and Kirk McEwen, morning deejay for radio station 98 Rock, is bouncing around in a neon green shirt, talking a mile a minute and "sweatin' like Mary Lou Retton."

As host of the first taping of a fledgling local TV series, "Rockin' Live at the Rock," McEwen is doing his best latter-day Dick Clark, getting the crowd at the Inner Harbor restaurant going. Helping out is local band Once Hush, which has shown up to both rock the house and make the house rock with laughter, mixing their Beatles-meet-Green Day tunes with such charming rock star quips as: "Tonight is buy my mom a shot night."

"Rockin' Live at the Rock" is the brainchild of Pete O'Neal, an award-winning news photographer for WMAR, Channel 2 and a camera operator for NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street."

"Rockin's" format combines live local music and random crowd interviews with pre-taped bits -- from footage on the episode's musical guests to most anything related to the world of music. McEwen describes it as "American Bandstand goes millennium -- without dancing."

WMAR and O'Neal don't know when the next batch of the 13 episodes ordered by the station will be taped. Nor do they know when the series will begin airing. Steve Gigliotti, vice president and general manager of WMAR, predicts both will take place sometime this summer. And he's looking for a late Friday night time slot.

Before anything more happens, though, O'Neal needs to get a major sponsor. Gigliotti said several potential sponsors have shown interest.

"I cover so much of the negative, I want to show the positive stuff [about Baltimore]," says O'Neal.

His job, which brings him to crime scene after crime scene, isn't his only exposure to the seamier side of Baltimore. In 1993, his mother, Jeromia, was bludgeoned to death in East Baltimore.

But instead of becoming embittered toward Baltimore, he's chosen to showcase the city's high points, from the scenery of the Inner Harbor to oft-neglected local musicians.

Timonium's Once Hush was chosen to appear in the pilot through a regional Battle of the Bands organized by Mars Music in Catonsville, which donated all of the sound equipment used for the first taping.

More than 100 bands from Maryland, Washington and Pennsylvania sent in tapes and five were selected to play mini-sets at Mars before a panel of judges.

A similar method is likely to be used for future selections, and bands interested in trying out for the series are invited to drop off tapes at Mars.

"Let's bust out some of these bands," said Greg Riordan, guitarist and vocalist for Once Hush. "Let's put our little city on the map."

On the evening of the taping, the atmosphere at The Hard Rock was spirited -- and spontaneous.

"I don't even know what I'm supposed to do," confessed co-host Niki Lee, a local singer/songwriter with platinum blond hair whose job on "Rockin" is to casually query Hard Rock patrons between acts.

Decked out in work boots and a short plaid skirt, Lee was swaying back and forth to jazz music, microphone dangling from her hand. "I think I'm just going to wing it."

O'Neal, who also directs and produces WMAR's weekly kids show "It's Kindertime," has seen the video of the material from the first night, and says he's satisfied with the results.

"It had a `Saturday Night Live' atmosphere," he says. "It's almost like this show has a `House of Blues' look."

He wants the finished product to be polished, he says, devoid of the unfinished, fuzzy "Wayne's World" quality often associated with local tube fare.

"Rockin' Live," he says, will definitely be a step up from "Turn it Up," a similar program he produced for WMAR about 10 years ago.

The concept seemed like a winner to the customers at the Hard Rock, many of whom weren't even aware that they'd be TV stars for a night.

"You take Hard Rock's name for its national hook, McEwen for his local tie and promote local bands," said Debra Streeter, a 30-year-old from Catonsville. "All together, it seems like a good combination."

Pub Date: 4/14/99

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