Campers once again ready to rock

File photo by Ray Bosley P.J. Olsson’s Rock Camp features about 30 young people singing, dancing and playing instruments. The performances this year take place starting 7 p.m. Saturday in the auditorium at the Michigan Technological University Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts.

HOUGHTON — In 2009, P.J. Olsson was asked to be the main musical act for the Houghton Spring Art and Music Festival, but there was no time to put a band together and he didn’t want to do a solo act, so that is how P.J. Olsson’s Rock Camp came into existence, according to Todd Brassard.

Brassard, the camp’s program director, said since he couldn’t take part in the festival himself, Olsson got the idea to go into Good Times Music store in Houghton, found 18 young people and asked them if they’d like to take part in the festival. They said “Yes,” and the practicing began.

“It was three weeks, three hours a day,” he said.

Olsson is a professional musician who records his own music. Plus, he’s the vocalist for the Alan Parsons Live Project. Parsons is an English musician and record producer who released several popular albums in the 1970s.

Olsson is the son of Milt Olsson, the creator of the music program at Michigan Technological University and former conductor of the Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra. P.J. Olsson now lives in Los Angeles.

This year, the Rock Camp performance takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Tech Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts.

Early on in the life of the Rock Camp, Brassard said practices took place in the Superior School of Dance on Front Street in Hancock.

“We set up in one of the studios there,” he said. “It was pretty bad, but they got better.”

All 18 young people found at Good Times were in that first band, Brassard said, and eventually they were ready to perform. That first performance took place at the time the reconstruction of Shelden Avenue in downton Houghton was going on.

“The festival was right there in the middle of the street in front of Good Times Music,” he said.

Some of the music the young people played were Olsson’s own compositions, which hadn’t been released, yet.

Although he and Olsson created a video and posters to publicize the public performance of the Rock Camp, Brassard said the first performance in the Rozsa Theater attracted only about 500 people to the 1,000-plus-seat theater.

Brassard said many Tech students provide technical help putting the Rock Camp and performance together. The students practice wherever they can find space in the Rozsa, and it’s sometimes difficult.

“The kids are put in a pressure cooker,” he said.

Brassard said he and Olsson make up the six or seven bands, which will perform, although the participants can ask to perform with specific members.

“Sometimes the kids have preferences,” he said.

Over the years, Brassard said there was a high of 38 Rock Camp participants, with a low of 30.

The playlist for the participants is varied, Brassard said, with music from the 1940s, 1970s, 1980s and current hits. There is even an occasional folk tune.

“They pick their songs,” he said. “Most all genres get represented. You need that.”

There has been some criticism of past Rock Camp performances, which lasted close to four hours, but Brassard said the length has been significantly shortened.

“We think we can do it in two hours this year,” he said.

Also taking part in this year’s performance is the Tech band, which is celebrating a reunion. All 80 brass-playing members are planned to be on the stage.

Brassard said the Rock Camp exists because of sponsors, donations and fundraising efforts. The fundraisers supply 40 to 50 percent of the cost of the program.

“It used to be $600 per kid,” he said. “This year it’s $700. About 65 percent (of the participants) are able to pay.”

Brassard said the Rock Camp gives participants a chance to actually be around people. Rather than being on Facebook, they are face to face. Instead of texting, their talking.

“Kids need a safe place to come together,” he said.

The Rock Camp has helped some participants overcome some emotional problems, Brassard said.

“They just want to play, and they want someone to play with,” he said.

After the show, Brassard said Olsson will do a solo performance on piano in the main lobby of the building.

He and Olsson aren’t academics, but he thinks they help the Rock Camp participants learn some life lessons.

“The proof of what we do is in the final show,” he said.

Brassard said he and Olsson are still trying to get more people to come see the performances. Usually only 300 to 400 people attend, and those who do get to see an excellent show.

“Come out and see these kids,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

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