My favorite part about Sound Off!, EMP's annual underage band tournament, is wandering the crowd and watching the musicians' parents react to the music. Some do awkward but supportive dances on the sidelines, some hide in the back and cover their ears, and some, believe it or not, are up in front, waving around a digital camera and dancing among the sea of teens. Last Saturday night, I saw plenty of every kind of behavior, while the fifth annual Sound Off! finals—featuring Capitol Basement, John Van Deusen and the Lonely Forest, and Ben Rice and the Youth of Blues—took place at EMP's Sky Church.

This year's Sound Off! competition started last fall, when EMP put out a call for entries. Artists of every genre could submit their demos for consideration, the only rule being that every member of the band had to be 21 years old or younger. After much analysis, the pool of hundreds of submissions was narrowed down to just nine semifinalists. For the first three Saturdays in February, three of the nine would play and be scored by a panel of judges. The band with the highest score moved on to the final round, which took place February 25.

As in previous Sound Off! finals, each band was given 40 minutes to wow the crowd and judges. Capitol Basement, fronted by a long-haired singer who sounds remarkably like Silverchair's Daniel Johns, churned out a classic rock-influenced grunge sound. John Van Deusen and the Lonely Forest were more pop flavored, combining an accessible and contemporary sound with impressive piano and thoughtful lyrics. Ben Rice and the Youth of Blues closed the show, boasting an energetic blues performance complete with harmonica, saxophone, and an amazing keyboardist who could jump and spin around without missing a note. If you closed your eyes, you never would've guessed any of 'em were still in high school.

Not only was this year's lineup more eclectic than past bills, but it also featured a lot of camaraderie. All the bands praised one another, and even joined their competitors onstage during parts of one another's set, dancing around in support of their efforts.

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There can only be one winner, alas, and once the scores were tallied, Anacortes's John Van Deusen and the Lonely Forest came out on top, snagging not only the grand prize package (which includes a performance at Bumbershoot 2006 and an on-air appearance on KEXP's Audioasis), but also the audience choice award.

All bands have bio information and songs available at www.emplive.org, if you feel like taking a peek into the future of local music. MEGAN SELING