Last time MarchFourth Marching Band graced Phoenix was in 2012 at Crescent Ballroom — and it went through hell to get there.
The Portland band's tour bus — carrying a troupe of about 30 performers — broke down just as it rolled into town. Midway through a sweaty show for a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd comprising just about every kind of music lover you can imagine — punks, hipsters, metalheads, hip-hoppers, jazzbos, and popsters — a band member detailed his group's transportation travails.
Suddenly, audience members began tossing money on the stage, at this point packed with horn players, guitarists, percussionists, dancers in sparkly leotards, and stiltwalkers. Thanks to the desert crowd's donations, MarchFourth was able to march its broke DIY-minded ass to the next town.
Two years later, the band still has the same grassroots mentality — and still puts on one of the best live shows around.
Think of it as Sgt. Pepper's meets Cirque du Soleil and Gogol Bordello playing at a New Orleans Mardi Gras party.
"Our sound is really all over the map," says leader John Averill. "We started off playing with a lot of NOLA [New Orleans], samba, Afrobeat, jazz, and Eastern European Gypsy brass elements, but over the past five years, we added guitar, and now our music has a lot more funk and rock going on."
But there's an element of ska and punk, compliments of trumpet player Katie Presley, the Ska Queen from Warsaw Poland Brothers. And the musical layers keep on building.
"We recently acquired some new players and songwriters, so it's nice to have new musical perspectives, and the dance team has been working out some new acrobatic stuff," Averill says. "The routines have become a lot more action-packed and acrobatic than the burlesque-y vignette kind of stuff from the early days."
Since its first show in 2003, the band's core aesthetic is DIY, and you can see it in the costumes the members design and sew, from the mismatched marching band uniforms to the vaudevillian dance outfits to the percussion corps harnesses made out of bicycle parts. There are also feathered conductor hats, bright spandex pants, hula hoops, and animal-print vests.
The majority of the self-managed band's four albums were recorded, produced, and mastered in-house, except for the most recent, 2011's Magnificent Beast. MarchFourth currently is touring with a handful of new songs, working them out on the road before (hopefully) recording a new album in the fall, as well as finishing up a documentary to submit to film festivals. Its most recent accomplishment was providing the song that played over the end credits of Monsters University.
After 11 years, it's amazing that the large act has survived with such a grassroots mentality. Then again, the countless cultures that influence the band musically have also permeated that character: equal parts "live life to the fullest" and "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
"We've gone through lots of changes for the better, as well as some very challenging times," Averill says. "But the project really needs to have some sort of quantum leap or significant macro-level exposure if we're going to get over the financial hump. Right now we're just doing everything the old fashioned way: tour, tour, tour!"