Add the Sterns to the great family bands of popular culture. Put us on a flashing marquee like the Osmonds, Jacksons, and von Trapps that came before. With a rotating lineup of three generations, a band dog who curls up next to the drummer, and enough hijinks for a Monkees plot, we've toured across the country from San Francisco to Boston. It doesn't matter to us if our fame is virtual and our fans digital; Rock Band was a hit at our annual Thanksgiving gathering.
Before I left the West Coast, I loaded up a dedicated carry-on with an Xbox 360, Wii, and the full complement of power supplies, video cables, and controllers. I made it through airport security without any problems. (And on the flight home, I wondered how many Rock Band kits the TSA had been screening.)
Like last year, the Wii was still popular. But we mostly stuck with Wii Sports. Even casual gamers have a glut of titles to wade through; we never opened Zack and Wiki and only briefly tried EA Playground and Rayman Rabbids 2.
Instead, Rock Band filled most of our game time. While I thought it'd be fun to try with my family, I never expected it to be "this year's Wii" as my sister said. Disguised as a rhythm game, Rock Band is a sleeper family hit. Every day, we joked about "getting the band back together" before assembling that evening's players.
"Are these real songs?" my dad asked as we scrolled through the list of quick-play tracks. We wanted to jump in and take the stage after initially setting up and plugging in. But even the Stones track was too pop-culture for him. We warmed to the progressive, song-unlocking style once we began our world tour, we wanted more multi-generational hits right away.
I promised that we'd try to download something he'd like better. "I'd pay any amount of money for Simon and Garfunkle," my mom added.
We stuck with the initial tracks for our first gigs. My dad took the drummer's chair, my sister, Alison, sang lead, my sister's fiancée, Zurich, played bass, and I played guitar. We launched into our first song without any tutorial or preparation. None of us had played a rhythm game with fake instruments, with the exception of Karaoke Revolution. But we quickly found a groove as we learned the process.
The vocal and guitar tracks were easiest to figure out. But we failed out of a few songs before seeing when to hit the kick-drum; that could have been better color coded, or maybe we didn't have accurate colors on the composite TV connection. My dad kept up with his drum track well but hammered out extra beats in flourishes of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the game didn't share his style, failing us out again.
We kept rotating drummers, with my mom stepping in. After we struggled through "Creep," she noted, "At least I didn't flunk out. ... I can't believe I only got 74 percent." She found a silver lining, noticing, "I had the most energy! I think that's a kind way to say I hit a lot of things."
All of us took a turn with the sticks with varying success. Even my grandmother made it through a few songs. But after everyone had a turn on various instruments, the core group of us (read: 29 to 38 year-olds) formed an in-game band.
Live on the road would be tough. We immediately hit our first snag when picking our characters and band name, as our drummer Rich had to leave for the night. (The call of his wife and kids was greater than the excitement of a road trip.)
We rushed through the setup, sticking with the default name, "Real Strumbar," and regretting it later. With the exception of the name, our gigs over the rest of the week were great. I was always thrilled whenever the crowd clapped on the beat behind us. And with four players taking a different role, Rich noted, "This is a lot more fun than Karaoke Revolution."
The game held us so tightly, we began to form a mythology about our band. Watching the in-game band-mates frolic around San Francisco and earn prizes after gigs caused us to imagine even more of a backstory. When my grandmother walked between us and the TV, she commented on the low quality of the clubs and how she had to cross the stage to get to the bathroom. At first, we were excited for all of the action our rockin' van was going to bring. But after we won a tour bus, we invented an elaborate story where we drove the old van into the river but made it look like an accident, collecting the money through insurance fraud. Now that's rock-and-roll.
My grandmother waking up late at night to investigate strange tapping sounds? (Was it a woodpecker? Water dripping?) Not rock-and-roll as much.
We downloaded the Police song pack and a CCR track for my dad and continued playing Rock Band every night. But technical problems disappointed us. Itching to spend Microsoft points, we wanted to buy tracks from within the game and couldn't find how. We eventually stumbled into the Marketplace song-purchase area.
Often, we'd have problems logging in all of the instruments, having to restart the Xbox and try again. With all of us swapping between instruments, we were annoyed that each player login had to correspond to our original instruments, wasting time while we tried to remember which of us originally played what. Temporary glitches also frustrated, like the Police songs didn't show up once while Fortunate Son was available. Restarts always solved these problems, but the game setup often took five or ten minutes.
Even with those many issues, we couldn't get enough of the virtual stage. For us music game newbies, the four roles felt exciting and different. Real Strumbar may not play again until next Thanksgiving; we're eagerly awaiting our triumphant 2008 reunion tour. Maybe we'll be able to download Simon and Garfunkel by then.