WATERLOO — At the Screaming Eagle, Savannah DeGroote keeps her eyes glued to the TV sets suspended from the ceiling above the stage. On other occasions, like when she’s singing the national anthem at a Bucks game in Riverfront Stadium, she squeezes shut her baby blues.
But no matter how the Waterloo girl finds her focus, the voice that emerges from the still-shy youngster is anything but reserved.
At age 11, “Miss Savannah Jane,” as she’s known to fans, delivers smoky, straight-ahead vocals as a member of the Dennis Wayne Gang. “She’s singing the country songs, but she’s actually more of a rocker,” said her dad and promoter Curtis DeGroote. “Classic rock,” amends Savannah. Dad and daughter exchange a glance, both with their eyebrows raised. Savannah breaks first, giggling. “OK, rock too,” she says. “But not pop. Pop, you know — Lady Gaga, I hate that.”
The exchange tells a lot about Savannah’s charm on stage. In this day and age it’s not unusual for pre-teens to punch their ticket to success before they hit puberty. But Savannah’s a kid through and through. After rehearsing Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” with the Gang last week, she left the basement practice area to play with two neighborhood girls and their pet gerbil.
“She’s still an 11-year-old, and we want that,” DeGroote said.
Savannah’s girl-next-door appearance extends on-stage, making her authoritative vocals seem all the more impressive. During a Friday night show at the Screaming Eagle the singer sported long blue jean shorts, white tennis shoes and a band T-shirt. She giggled as lead singer Dennis Halverson cracked jokes between songs, her eyes sparkling like a kid who managed to snag a seat at the adults’ table on Thanksgiving Day.
Then she started to sing.
“It amazes me every time,” said Boualay Crow, a family friend who traveled from Parkersburg to take in Savannah’s Friday night show. “She has a very jazzy, almost sultry, sound that you don’t expect to come from such a little girl.”
More surprising, perhaps, is the confidence the grade-schooler emits. Savannah is a vocal sprinter, singing tempo-pushing ballads like Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder & Lead” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” at the top of her lungs from the first note.
Band leader Dennis Halverson invited the girl to join his group in May after hearing her perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events. She currently sings four songs with the Gang and hopes to add another three tunes to her repertoire.
“I said: ‘People gotta hear her,’” Halverson said. “It just blows you away.”
In addition to the Screaming Eagle, Savannah has performed with the band at other local venues, including Voodoo Lounge in Cedar Falls. Her parents attend every show and get permission from the establishments’ owners for their daughter to perform in clubs where alcohol is served.
Savannah started her singing career in 2009 after a teacher’s aide at her school was impressed by the girl’s karaoke skills during a classmate’s birthday party. A few months later she performed Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” at the Cedar Heights Elementary talent show. This summer she’s continuing to develop her voice by singing with the Dennis Wayne Gang and performing the national anthem.
“This is a hobby, but it’s also a very good thing for me,” said Savannah, who dreams of becoming a singer and a stay-at-home mom. “I want to get famous so I can have a good life and do what I want.”
The Cedar Valley native is well on her way, at least on the local music scene. On Friday she’ll perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a show by national recording artist Saliva at the TicketCrusher Amphitheater in Waterloo. She’ll sing the same song July 30 for an estimated crowd of 50,000 prior to a NASCAR race at the Iowa Motor Speedway in Newton.
Between baby-sitting gigs, Savannah is polishing a new set of songs this summer including, Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” Heart’s “Barracuda” and Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker.”
“One comment we’ve heard that really seems to fit is: ‘Little girl, big voice,’” her dad said. “That’s Savannah.”
Not even for the audience members in camouflage and combat boots halfway across the globe.
All soldiers, and anybody else, needed to do to see the live shows last month was log onto the Waterloo country/rock band’s website (www.dwglive.com), where they could watch, listen and add their comments in real time.
The Dennis Wayne Gang is far from the only group utilizing UStream, a free live-streaming service. But they might be the first band locally connecting military personnel with live music, as well as their families back home.
“We need to do that for the guys over there,” said Dennis Halverson, lead singer and rhythm guitarist in the band.
Halverson, who asked band manager Curtis DeGroote to figure out a way to live stream the band’s shows, said part of the reason he wanted to do that was to reach out to his older brother Mark, stationed with the Marine Corps in Okinawa, Japan.
He thought other military families might want to do the same.
“I was like, ‘There’s gotta be a way,’” Halverson said. “You have video phones and everything else; that would be cool if we could actually do a show.”
On Nov. 12, the band went live at Screaming Eagle, playing their set for both a live audience and a UStream audience of about 16. The next show, at The Hoist on Nov. 20, netted about the same amount.
Both Waterloo shows featured the Dennis Wayne Gang, who took breaks to let families of military personnel come on stage to speak to their loved ones on camera.
They’ll do the same tonight at the Wheelhouse in Cedar Falls. The show starts at 9 p.m., and admission is $3.
Despite doing relatively the same show they would normally do, the band is aware they’re broadcasting to the world.
“Initially, the idea was a little bit unnerving — just because there’s potentially so many more people watching, and you don’t really know exactly how it’s sounding over the Internet,” said Elvin Johnson, electric guitar player.
Eleven-year-old singer Savannah DeGroote said she also was worried about how a larger audience might judge her. Those fears have mostly subsided.
“I think I’ve got to get a little used to it,” she said. “It’s pretty cool that they can see you, see what’s going on.”
To Halverson, it’s about lifting the spirits of those who can’t be with their families over the holidays.
“Our biggest goal is … to get that direct link with our fans and people serving overseas, no matter where they are,” he said. “We’re saying we support you, and we understand why you’re there.”
( a Dennis Wayne Gang original)