More than 100 student performers rocked a full house Friday during the 29th annual “American Pie” concert at Columbus North High School.
This year’s 33-song version, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” entertained the crowd of 1,100 for three-and-a-half hours without an intermission. The show covered musical hits from four time periods: 1963 to 1967, 1973 to 1977, 1982 to 1986 and 1992 to 1996.
“American Pie” takes its name from the 1971 hit single by Don McLean that chronicled rock-music history from the 1950s and 1960s. Friday’s show, revisiting additional decades of music and social history, was the culmination of three days of boot-camp style rehearsals led by organizer and retired North history teacher Ed Niespodziani, who created the concept as a way to make history more interactive for students.
Audience members filled the orchestra pit from the first note, gently pushing close to the stage to dance as schoolmates performed, backed by a live band of adult musicians assembled for the event.
From others still in their seats, whispers of lyrics carried through the crowd, reminiscing over slices from four distinct decades of contemporary music. As a source of context, Niespodziani and North choral director Janie Gordon read contributed quotes about high school, and the music that accompanied it.
Junior Katie Gemberling, who performed as a back-up singer throughout the show, moved into the spotlight to sing lead on “Dancing in the Streets,” originally performed by Martha and the Vandellas. Patting the stacked bump in her hair and smoothing her glittery green dress, Gemberling afterward explained what she liked about the era. “You can really feel all of the emotion in the songs,” she said.
Clad in a leather jacket with necklaces resembling dog tags strung about his neck, junior Sean Gilley gave a soulful rendition of Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” History, he said, is a hobby of his, and he sees parallels between the ’60s and today.
“A lot of things were changing in that time,” he said. “There was a lot of tension. There are still problems — but there’s always music.”
Wearing a clingy patterned top and billowy, earth-tone pants, Tayler Seymour stepped into Linda Ronstadt’s “It’s So Easy,” mimicking the singer’s husky alto tones.
“As I kept singing it, I was like, ‘wow,’” she said.
For “Bohemian Rhapsody,” 26 students from Columbus North and Columbus high schools, delivered a dynamic performance of the iconic Queen song.
Outfitted out in a sleek black suit with crisp white shirt, all of junior Skylar Fleetwood’s considerable vocal energy was channeled in her performance of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” originally belted out by Annie Lennox.
“It fits my voice really well,” said Fleetwood, who learned that the ‘80s were “a time when people did what they wanted.”
No stranger to “American Pie” shows or to tribute bands, Nick Niespodziani returned to Columbus from Atlanta, where he performs in the Yacht Rock Revue cover band. As the event founder’s son, Niespodziani has been in “American Pie” since eighth grade. This year, he played guitar in the American Pie band and performed a rousing rendition of Pearl Jam’s “Alive.”
“The ’90s seem like the last time music could represent rebellion,” Niespodzani said. “I miss that.”
In a grunge-era flannel shirt, Krishan Narsinghani effectively growled Kurt Cobain-style vocals to Nirvana’s “Come as You Are.”
“It was challenging,” said Narsinghani, who watched videos of Cobain to prepare. “He had this good vibe about him all the time.”
Learning the music, the lyrics and revisiting the styles of each decade, history came alive for the students.
“Teaching history at this level is the hardest thing in the world,” Ed Niespodziani said. “They don’t have the time to understand the concept of time. But everybody can relate to music.”