It’s a Saturday night at the Wicker Park Urban Outfitters and the punky all-girl trio Gamine Thief is playing in the second-floor men’s footwear pagoda. Flams and feedback fill the store, and fans and supporters stand side by side with curious shoppers, potential purchases in hand. The spectacle, part of a benefit for the Girls Rock! Chicago summer camp, has lured in two plump-faced girls no older than ten who are cruising around on their own. Though they aren’t campers, they are the camp’s target demographic: they love music, all kinds. The girls nod in unison; this is the first time they’ve ever seen a rock band. After two songs they depart from their hiding spot inside a rack of men’s pants and scurry downstairs, where they spend the rest of the set covertly browsing a book of sex advice.

At Girls Rock! Chicago, a weeklong summer day camp, girls ages 9 through 16 can accomplish more than some indie rockers will by 25: they receive basic music instruction, form bands, write songs, and get to perform in a showcase at Schubas. But the camp is about more than just teaching the girls killer drum fills or how to tune a bass. “Girls watch a lot of American Idol and that is their idea of ‘women in music,'” says camp president and cofounder Emily Easton. “We show them another way.”

Workshops include a discussion on gender stereotypes in music, hands-on lessons in silk-screening T-shirts, and tips on playing and booking shows. Organizers aren’t hoping to turn out touring bands of junior high school girls, but Easton says all this helps in “instilling ideas so that they feel confident enough to be onstage and think of forming a band as a way to spend their time. A lot of them really love music and they get excited to be around other girls who like music and are interested in making it too.”

Last year, the camp’s first, the roughly $5,000 budget was scrapped together from tuition fees and proceeds from small-scale fund-raisers; one of the biggest events was a bar night at Danny’s in Bucktown. But for 2007 the camp is looking to more than double its enrollment to 50 girls from last year’s 17, and the organizers hope to offer a recording session and compile a CD of the band’s songs. They expect their budget to increase accordingly, to about $13,000, and that means bake sales won’t cut it.

Easton and her cofounders–Heather Lember, Alison Murray, and Renee Neuner, the three members of Gamine Thief–have formed a nine-member board and successfully applied for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. No aspiring rocker will be turned away for lack of funds: tuition is on a sliding scale and ten scholarship spots have been reserved for underprivileged girls who will be culled through partnerships with Latinos Progressando and the YWCA Rise Children’s Center.

“Whatever we can’t get donated,” says Easton, “we’ll have to pay for–the venue, supplies for workshops, instruments, insurance.” Neuner, who functions as camp director, has about five years’ experience working in nonprofits and handles the grant applications, and most of the counselors and board members are pitching in to put together bar nights and benefit shows. Gamine Thief was one of five bands that played for free at Urban Outfitters on March 10 as part of a weekend-long event during which the store donated 10 percent of all sales to the camp; the fund-raiser brought in $4,000.

While money is always a concern, the benefits are intended to raise more than funds. The camp needs to recruit more women to meet its goal of 40 volunteers. When last year’s camp started, Easton says with a laugh, they realized there’d been a serious oversight: “We had forgotten that the girls needed to move their amps twice a day. We have to get roadies, otherwise it’s a nightmare–we learned on the first day.”

Perhaps the most serious challenge the organizers have faced this year has been finding the camp a home. Last year’s edition was held at Roosevelt University, but the school’s open campus raised concerns. “We have specific needs,” explains Easton. “When you’re working with kids you need to have a closed, secure space. And we also need space where five bands are able to play at a time and not disturb each other or anyone else.” A new location at Sabin Elementary Magnet School in Wicker Park and an August 11-17 schedule were confirmed this past Tuesday.

Twelve-year-old Shelan O’Keefe will be a returning camper this year. A professed fan of David Byrne and Rachel Yamagata, she’d experimented with songwriting on her acoustic guitar and tried for two years without success to find other girls her age who were interested in forming a band. Then she went to camp and the experience changed her life: “I really improved my guitar skills and songwriting. It inspired me to practice more. I learned how to figure out how to choose people to be in a band with, and about the hard work it takes to put on a show.” Her camp band, the Jagged Tulips, was chosen to open for Nina Hagen at the Metro as part of last year’s Estrojam.

O’Keefe continues to practice on an electric guitar loaned to her by one of the counselors at the end of camp last summer. She says her material is mostly “dark funk and funny songs.”

“I want to start a year-round band to keep going after camp,” she says. “I get excitement from this; it’s like putting how you feel at that moment, putting it into sound. I love expressing myself that way. You may not understand what the person is saying, but it’s beautiful.”

The next benefit is set for May 12 at Quenchers (2401 N. Western, 773-276-9730). For more info on how to sign up, donate, or volunteer, see

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.