By Niki D'Andrea Photos by Luke Holwerda
Better than: That one time, at band camp.
Five things that truly blow my mind (in descending order):
4. Why the plural of "fax" isn't "fux."
2. The idea that our whole universe could be the product of a "cosmic defect."
1. March Fourth Marching Band, "Portland, Oregon's premier surrealist big-band groove machine."
My No. 1 pick, March Fourth Marching Band, has the distinction of being the only musical act about which I'll tell people, "You've never seen anything like this before."
I'm a firm believer in the Ecclesiastes adage "There is nothing new under the sun" (one of the few times you'll catch me quoting The Bible), but this massive music collective recycles and reinvents so many different musical styles that it's impossible to confuse their compositions with anybody else's. Their live performances are so visually compelling and stacked with stimuli that observers at their shows start to feel like Malcolm McDowell's character in A Clockwork Orange, hooked up to that "reprogramming" machine that forever changed the meaning of Mozart's music for him. Audiences are inundated with so many sights and sounds that it's sensuously exhausting. Every person I've ever brought to a March Fourth Marching Band performance was absolutely beat by the end of the night, even if they were stone-cold sober and never moved from their seats. It's like having Vegas in your face for a full week, like Vaudeville on Valium, like a cabaret on crack, like frigging water for acid-laced chocolate.
The first time I saw March Fourth Marching Band in Phoenix, they completely caught me by surprise (revisit my column "Horny Blast" for a full rundown). The nine-piece brass section was decked out in myriad costumes from hobo chic to Flash Gordon-esque garb; there were a handful of female dancers dressed like crosses between Betty Boop and Fetish Barbie; stilt walkers in tight, striped pants; and an eight-person percussion section that looked like they just walked off the set of a Bette Midler/Rosie O'Donnell remake of What Happened to Baby Jane? The whole massive marching band filled the stage and floor at Alice Cooper'stown, turning the venue into something more similar to a raucous 1920s speak easy jam in an opium den than a sports restaurant owned by a rock star in modern downtown Phoenix. I have never forgotten it.
So when I heard that MFMB was coming back to Phoenix for the annual Phoenix Parade of the Arts and a repeat performance at Cooper'stown, nothing could keep me from going, or dragging along a handful of friends.
Before March Fourth Marching Band assailed our senses, local Celtic rock band The Biffos played a slew of songs, including a cover of Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road" and a handful of songs from their album, Suffering Is Optional. Musically, the quartet sounds similar to Flogging Molly and The Pogues; visually, they're a trip because singer/guitarist Brian O'Carroll looks so much like Billy Joel. They're well worth checking out for a "have another beer-and-kick up your heels-and-clap along" experience.
March Fourth Marching Band's performance was even more stunning than the previous year's, even though the band seemed half the size of last year's band, and they were wrapping up a seven-week national tour. As soon as the musicians gathered around the stage, looking like the pierced and tattooed outcasts of every straight-laced, small-town high school marching band, people in the audience were giving each other "What the fuck?" looks.
But when they started playing, the funky bass lines and wall of Woodstock-esque communal percussion brought out the boogie monsters in everybody. When people weren't watching the stilt walkers and dancers doing circus acrobatics, they were on their feet, dancing with the band and each other. Because Halloween is right around the corner, a lot of folks were in costumes, which only added to the surreal effect. I danced with a matador and Alice in Wonderland for a few tunes. There were a couple people getting down in Sumo wrestler costumes. The band's various instrumentals meld everything from salsa to Persian music to gypsy folk to ska and jazz, and by the time MFMB got two songs into its set, I swear there wasn't a single person standing still. By the time they finished, folks were asking for an encore. Luckily, my buddy B-Boy had heard me talk so much about the band in the weeks leading up to its show that he'd been listening to them online, and made a request for the song "Baby" (off MFMB's self-titled CD). The band complied with the request, leading the audience in a sing-along near the end of the tune (collectively, we sounded horrible -- not unlike a pack of injured, howling dogs -- but it was so much fun).
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Personal bias: March Fourth Marching Band's CD makes me wiggle in my chair.
Random detail: There was an afterparty for March Fourth Marching Band at The Firehouse (off 1st street and Roosevelt). Matt Spastic, of local punk band The Complainiacs, was wearing a bright red wig and telling me over and over how he wanted to get a baby carriage and fill it with beer.