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A BAND OF BUDDIES

They played the all-ages show at the Brass Mug three times, packing the neon-lit bar with almost everyone they knew: Ben's mom, Steve's girlfriend, Andrew's girlfriend, Eric's grandmother.

They played homecoming at Jesuit High School with six other high school bands. They played last, after the pep rally. By then, almost everyone was gone. It took them 20 minutes to set up. Ben Bolton, the lead singer, said "check" into the microphone about 15-million times until someone yelled, "Enough already!"

It wasn't their best performance. The bass was too loud. The speakers popped with static. But the members of Irrate didn't care, especially when the handful of people who were still there began to dance.

This weekend, the guys play the Teenage Battle of the Bands in the parking lot of Houlihan's Stadium. It will be the band's fifth gig. For Irrate and 13 teen bands, it's a chance to play for a big crowd and maybe win some much-needed free studio time.

The bands have names like Edgewise, Shatterday, Monkey Love and Our Moms Think We're Cool. They all have their own start-up stories and their share of tag-along girlfriends with metallic nail polish and baggy jeans.

And they all have dreams.

"For a long time, I never wanted to be big," said Irrate's drummer, Steve Martinez. "But a few days ago, I was watching the Smashing Pumpkins video and I realized that they don't have money problems. They can sit around and play in the studio all day."

Irrate doesn't really like the term "garage band."

"It sounds so immature," said Martinez, 17.

They practice in a room adjacent to the garage in the bass player's house, a yellow ranch-style home in the suburbs north of Tampa. The room once was an office. Now, you can hardly move with all the amps, speakers and wires. Now, it lacks peace and quiet.

Practice goes something like this: Jam hard for two hours, break for slushies at the corner Circle K, jam hard for two more hours.

Sometimes, the band does not play at all. Sometimes, they shoot pool at Poppy's Place, browse at the Mars Music Superstore. Or they take Steve's station wagon down to a nearby deli after it closes _ it's their private spot. They lie on the curb and look up at the sky and talk about girls, school, parents and goals. These four band mates are also good friends.

Steve Martinez and bass player Eric Hanson say music is their life. Guitarist Andrew Verastegui eventually wants to be a marine biologist. Ben Bolton says he wants to teach world history some day, although he's giving music a try first.

They all came to Irrate from previous bands, either garage or marching. Bolton, Verastegui and Martinez go to Gaither High School in Northdale. Hanson is a junior at Jesuit High.

At camp a year ago, they played music together. That's when they knew they were going to be a band.

"We clicked just like that," Bolton said.

They all know songs by Bad Religion by heart and dislike Nirvana because the band was so well liked. They think Marilyn Manson is just a stage show and Bush's lyrics are meaningless.

They love listening to music and talking about it. And they love playing it.

"When you play drums, energy kind of runs through your veins," Martinez said. "It's euphoric."

The band's name was going to be Histrionic, a word they randomly picked from the dictionary. They liked its allusion to performing. But they dropped it as a name because it required too much explanation.

They went instead with their second choice, irate, misspelling it simply because they could.

Their music isn't punk or ska or metal, they say. It is their own.

"Our music is more about ourselves," Bolton said.

They write songs about girls, being free, God, unnecessary society labels and steering clear of drugs. A sample lyric: "So you hang around someone that you own / Never even call him on the phone / Though he'll let you stay in his home / Can't tell if you're friend or foe."

One song, Joe Smith, was written after the poem Richard Cory came up in an English class.

"The only class I was attentive in last year," said Eric.

The band used to have another member, but he never showed up for practice so they ditched him. They didn't want anyone who wasn't really, really into the band.

"It's hard work," said Hanson, who books the band's gigs at the Brass Mug.

When you're in a band with dreams, you show up for practice. You study guitar fingerings and jot down lines in your Mead notebook since you never know when something brilliant wil pop into your head. And you work at Steak N Shake, washing dishes until you have enough money for that used Peavy amp.

But sometimes you can't do it all.

"I came home one day," Bolton says, "and my blanket was on the floor of my room and I was like, "Why the hell is my blanket on the ground?' I just cleaned my room. So I went to pick it up and I saw the sound monitor underneath it. I had been talking about it for weeks and my dad bought it for me. I was speechless."

Some parents go to high school football games to root for their children. Linda Bolton goes to the Brass Mug. She's learned a lot about music from her son, Ben. She likes Verve Pipe and recently bought a Jewel CD.

She also buys anything with guitars on it for Ben, including a T-shirt with a guitar-strumming Kermit the Frog, although Ben doesn't wear that one too often.

Linda Bolton, a program assistant at Hospice of Hillsborough, hasn't missed any of Irrate's gigs. She says being in a band has helped her son become more responsible and increasingly comfortable on stage.

"That will come in handy when he's teaching in front of a class," she said.

The Teenage Battle of the Bands is the brainchild of Russell Elefterion, youth program developer of the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department. He understands that not every teenager is into softball or roller hockey.

Growing up, Elefterion was in a band called Brew. They played Bob Seger and ZZ Top songs. One former Brew member is a state attorney in Texas and another is a lawyer.

Elefterion organized last year's Battle of the Bands at Lake Park in North Tampa. The lineup had only six acts, but the audience topped 800.

This year, Elefterion found a bigger venue in the Hillsborough County Fair.

"It's the time of the year the county picks its best cow, its best pie," he said. "Why not its best teenage band?"

Contestants get 45 minutes on stage tonight and Saturday.

"We are hoping for a lot of people," said Tampa Tech student David Falquez of the band Kiplipid.

Winners will be selected by a panel of judges and will perform again at 2 p.m. Sunday. Second-, third- and fourth-place winners will receive a 30-minute spot on public access television. The first-place winner gets a two-song demo deal with American Music Works, valued at about $500.

Sometimes the members of Irrate say they want to win. Sometimes they say they don't care.

Whatever the outcome Sunday, they are sure to be in school the next day, analyzing their performance to death. By then, Houlihan's Stadium will be cleaning up after the fair and setting up for Monday night's U2 concert.

In Dublin not that many years ago, there were four friends playing in a high school band.

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