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Local band gets 'big break' Thursday as they open during Bon Jovi concert at Xcel

Local band fourforty will open for Bon Jovi during the rock legends' concert Thursday at Xcel Energy Center. Band members include (from left) Kelly Gruis, Brian Jensen, Mark FitzSimmons, Pat Jacobsen. Submitted photo

WILLMAR -- A four-man band made up of old high school buddies that plays "straight up rock-and-roll" is getting the break of a lifetime.

Thursday, fourforty -- a local band that played Saturday at the Spicer American Legion -- will be playing 30 minutes of original music on the stage of the Xcel Energy Center before the Bon Jovi concert.

"For us it's living a dream," said Mark FitzSimmons, the lead vocalist and songwriter for fourforty.

Last week the band was selected as one of eight finalists in a contest called The Big Break, sponsored by metro radio station KQRS, for a chance to play at Xcel to open for Bon Jovi.

On Friday, they learned they were one of two Minnesota bands to earn the grand prize. They will take their home-grown rock and roll to the Xcel on Thursday. Tonight, the band Select 3, with Hastings-area ties, opens the first of two nights of Bon Jovi at the Xcel.

Fourforty music

Fourforty, made up of Willmar and New London-Spicer graduates, has been playing music together, off and on, for more than 20 years. A majority of the music they play was written by FitzSimmons, who said years of listening to rock and roll, as well as hearing life's stories, serves as his inspiration.

The band usually plays for a crowd of a couple hundred.

To be able to play for one of the "biggest rock bands" at the Xcel Energy Center where thousands will be in attendance is "just incredible, said FitzSimmons. "We're happy as can be to have the opportunity."

FitzSimmons, along with guitarist Pat Jacobsen and drummer Kelly Gruis, went to school in Willmar. Brian Jensen, the bass player, went to New London-Spicer.

They all graduated from high school in the mid-'80s, which puts the four musicians in the 40-something age bracket, hence the name fourforty. The name is also a reference to the concert tuning pitch of 440 hertz.

The band members are "really good friends and we like playing music and it all fell into place," said Jacobsen, who owns Fat Freddy's, a guitar shop in downtown Willmar. "We just like playing music and hanging out together."

Big break

"We just heard about this contest and we thought, what the heck," said Jacobsen.

The group sent in a demo tape and a photo.

Getting onto the top eight list was "the best we could hope for," said Jensen. Band members "believe in the songs we're doing" and entering the contest was a way to "prove something to ourselves," he said.

On March 29 the band was selected by KQRS radio staff as one of eight finalists for the contest.

Photos and recordings of two original songs performed by each band were posted on the station's Web site and people were asked to vote for their favorite.

When word spread, via e-mail and Facebook, that fourforty was on the list of top eight bands, the online votes started pouring in from friends and family.

"That was the most fun of the whole thing, to have so many people get so involved in it," said Jensen. "It really spread like crazy."

That community response and support from "little town America" has overwhelmed the band members, said FitzSimmons, expressing his thanks to those who voted the band onto the stage.

The group isn't expecting a big recording offer or a quick launch to stardom as a result of opening for Bon Jovi.

"There's no ego involved," said Jacobsen. "It's like, wow, you get this opportunity. Just to experience something like this is great."

Because the band members all have day jobs, they won't have a chance to practice before they arrive Thursday at the Xcel. But with more than 20 years of playing together, the group knows the songs and what to do.

"We'll just let her buck, I guess. It's all rock and roll," said Jacobsen.

"We're not trying to over-think it," saidFitzSimmons. "We're just going to go out and have a good time, which I don't think will be too tough to do."

After some scheduled play dates in St. Paul this spring, fourforty's next local appearance will be June 4 at the Spicer American Legion.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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