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‘Superman’ act getting noticed

Tommy Alto wins local youth award
Tom Vander Kam

The name may be Alto – the sound is anything but.

Tom Vander Kam, a.k.a. Tommy Alto, has a robust voice that sits naturally in the baritone-bass register – even though, as he notes, he has “a pretty solid high register” that also gets a workout in his current psycho-pop/rock ‘n’ roll repertoire.

But its his deep tones that are the trademark that makes him stand out from the crowd, particularly among other performers of his age (he’s only 16). He’s tall, too, and sports shorn locks quite unlike the Bieber-esque bobs of contemporaries.

Add an affable air of confidence, an appropriate amount of modesty and undeniable musical ability (he played all the instruments as well as doing the vocals on his self-produced debut album Scream My Name!) and its clear Vander Kam is a performer with the potential to go far in the music business.

Not surprisingly, Vander Kam, who won the Ocean Park Idol contest last year, has just notched up another win – he and his band took the top spot in the Surrey City Jam youth talent contest, announced at the Surrey Youth Recognition Awards May 6 at Surrey Arts Centre.

The group was competing against 20 different acts, 13 of them other bands in a series of semi finals from early April to early May.

Pre-teen winner was pianist vocalist Benjamin Dunnill (second place went to singer Jenny Kalichoran, while guitarist-singer Kelly Salmon came in third).

Vander Kam acknowledges that it must have been a tough “apples and oranges” decision when it came to the final judging for the Youth category, in which he and his band edged out the very young group Orbit (second place winners) and traditional Chinese guzang player Julia Han.

“How do you compare my kind of band to a girl with a 21-stringed Chinese instrument?” he wondered, admitting that he also found the skill level of such competitors more than a little daunting.

“When I went in at first I had great confidence, but when I saw all the other acts I was up against, I’ll be honest with you, I was intimidated,” he said.

“Orbit is a group of 11- to 13-year-olds and, particularly considering their age, they’re really, really good. I thought they were going to win for sure. There were a lot of great acts.”

But Vander Kam said that he and bandmates Brett McCrady (guitar and vocals), Marshall Herridge (bass) and Ostyn Farmer (drums) are “relieved, happy and excited to be given the opportunity to participate.”

Among prizes the group won are six hours of recording time at Turtle Studios, and Vander Kam said it’s likely they’ll use that to lay down drum tracks for a new album that he will complete in his home recording studio.

While the previous album was virtually a one-man effort, he says that 95 per cent of Tommy Alto performances these days are with the full band.

“It’s a lot more fun playing with three other guys of the same age. We work well together and the energy is much better.”

The evolution of Tommy Alto is a work in progress, Vander Kam admits. Because of his vocal range it was a natural for him to start out covering Johnny Cash material, segueing into blues and rockabilly – but his music now is “pretty much all rock ‘n’ roll” he said.

An important part of that progress has been developing the stage persona of Tommy Alto, he said.

“My mom came up with the name,” he said, readily acknowledging the huge amount of support and guidance she has provided in supporting and managing his fledgling career so far, although he has latterly taken over the reins in defining and promoting his music.

“When she first said it, it was kind of a joke. But a week later, I was thinking about it and realized I really liked it.”

An alter ego can be very useful for an entertainer, said Vander Kam, who in addition to his musical skills also happens to be an honour-roll student at Earl Marriott Secondary (he recently got a 93 per cent grade in physics, his best subject).

“It’s sort of like a Superman thing,” he laughed.

“By day, I’m this 11th grade student and by 11 p.m., three night a week, I’m Tommy Alto in venues all over the Lower Mainland!”

Observers have described his transformation into the completely assured, high energy Tommy, whenever he steps on stage, as “like watching somebody walk through a wall,” he said.

It helps that he likes the other version of himself.

“I’m good friends with Tommy – we have a lot in common,” he laughed.

“I guess he’s more charismatic than I am, a lot more outgoing, and definitely louder.”

That charisma and energy will be on view this weekend (May 20-22) at the Whistler Week of Blues festival (as he performs with other rising Peninsula stars Sam and Luke and Sean ‘Blues Puppy’ Riquelme representing emerging Vancouver-area talents).

“We have a pretty amazing young local music scene, definitely,” Vander Kam noted.

Local audiences will also be able to catch him June 18 at Ocean Park Day, where he will return to the Ocean Park Idol event, this time as a judge.

Vander Kam played a 10-day tour in Washington and Oregon in support of his album in March, a trip that has only made him hungrier to do more.

“If I could make it a career, I’d be the happiest man on Earth, but I’m keeping my school grades up anyway,” he said.

About the Author: Alex Browne

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