Rockin’ for the kids

After nearly a decade of school performances, neighborhood-famous band Armatagious is looking to pass the instruments

ARMATAGE — It started with a birthday. Armatage Community and Montessori School turned 50 in 2002 and staff wanted to celebrate with a big party and live music — something to get students going during the cold, slow month of January.

They needed a band. A band that would not only be appropriate for elementary-age kids, but one that would represent the neighborhood and, of course, get people dancing.  

“The question was who would do it,” recalled the school’s principal, Joan Franks.

The answer: Parents. A group who had come to know each other through the school decided they just might have enough musical talent to pull it off. Those who didn’t would learn. They decided to go with a band name that honored the school and their community.

“Armatagious. It’s contagious,” said lead guitarist Joel Dupay, known as Joey.

The group played a 1950s set at the school in 2002 and stars were born. It was such a hit that Armatagious came back the next year, and the next, and every year since.

“The kids go absolutely nuts because it’s parents and it’s teachers they know and its been a fabulous addition to the culture of our community,” Franks said.

But most Armatagious members — Steve Johnson, lead vocalist; Dave Anderson, rhythm guitar; Rich Pearson, bass; Ed Doyle, drums; Carol Johnson, keyboard; Cindy Bergstrom, singer; and Dupay — are now soon-to-be empty nesters. Their children are long past elementary school and their connections to students have faded.

Though Armatagious has gained enough fame in the neighborhood to be a staple at the Armatage Neighborhood Association’s summer festival, the band is hoping a new group of parents takes on the school shows.

“For the school effort, we want more people to come out of the woodwork and take the torch,” said Dupay, who also plays in a band that performs in Northeast Minneapolis.

He said the purpose of the parent band has evolved beyond getting students dancing at sock hops. Though that’s still important, the effort also gives students a chance to see a live band, which isn’t as common in schools as it used to be.

“If you can inspire one kid to want to play a music, hey, so be it,” Dupay said.

A student band did open for Armatagious one year, possibly motivated by the parent musicians.

Armatagious will probably continue to play at neighborhood festivals and other low-key events, said frontman Johnson, widely known as the Mayor of Armatage. Johnson’s stage antics involve old-school dance moves and plenty of crowd interaction. He might stumble through “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen once in a while, but no one cares.   

“Yeah, fun is what this is all about,” Johnson said. “It’s not like we’re on key or on pitch all the time.”

The Hawaiian shirt-wearing, oldies-playing band has developed a strong neighborhood following over the years, which includes City Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward).

“Certainly they’re my favorite Armatage band,” Hodges said with a laugh at the neighborhood festival in July. “It’s completely homegrown. They have a great time everywhere they go and in everything they do. They carry the spirit of the neighborhood with them, and they want people to get involved and enjoy themselves as much as they enjoy themselves.”

Getting the band to play at the neighborhood festival has been a top priority for the Armatage Neighborhood Association.

“They’re a part of the neighborhood, and they want to give back to the neighborhood,” said the organization’s president, Dan Sweeney. “So this is one of the things they can do to give back.” 

Click here to watch a slideshow of Armatagious performing at the Armatage Summer Festival.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]