I love that we live in an age where all things that used to be nerdy have been subverted and reprogrammed into something cool and hip — or at least ironic and hip, which is even better.
So it has been with comics. (Look at the size of the San Diego Comic Con; it’s where Hollywood goes with its hat in hand to find out what it should be doing next.) So it has been with sci-fi and fantasy. (Lord of the Rings brings home the Oscar! Harry Potter brings home everything else!) And now, so it has become with marching bands.
Yeah, marching bands. And I’m not just talking about stories of scrappy underdogs determined to make it all the way to the top of a college drumline. (I’m referring here, of course, to the 2002 movie Drumline.) No, last night my kids and I took in a free concert of local “circus punk marching band” Mucca Pazza. Ironic and hip. Even better.
Mucca Pazza is the kind of mad experiment that, I imagine, begins with a couple of good friends on a fire escape deck, a cooler of Coors, a mild buzz, and someone saying, “What if…”
What if you made a jazz-funk-fusion band with marching band instrumentation?
What if you augmented that sound with violins and accordions and electric guitars and mandolins?
What if you grasped that marching band motif with both hands and milked it like an engorged Guernsey udder?
What if you channeled the spirit of a real marching band — High school! Athletic boosterism! Friendships bound through common hardship and esprit de corps! — and used it to fuel some cracked-out performance art of the highest exuberance?
After you asked enough of those questions you’d arrive at this answer:
Mucca Pazza certainly lives up to its billing as “circus punk,” though I might quibble on emphasis, calling it instead a woozy fusion of Sousa, ska, klezmer, punk and funk, arranged by Danny Elfman in a Hungarian bordello and conducted by the ghost of Frank Zappa in a Marrakech bazaar. And as you can see, Mucca Pazza doesn’t so much play its music as sling it like hot hash. Their performance goes past high-octane all the way to pure diesel, from the mix-and-matched horn players prancing a deranged New Orleans funeral parade, to the crew of cheerleaders pumping their pompons, high-kicking their sneakers, and weaving high-energy mischief across the stage and through the crowd like a platoon of four-color Kokopellis. Seriously, Red Bull, consider this a prime sponsorship opportunity.
Mucca Pazza represents my favorite realm of expression, both love letter to and parody of something iconic and nostalgic. “We loved the old times,” Mucca Pazza seems to say, “but they were ridiculous too, eh? Well, what the hell. Watch what I can do!”
I consider this the logical conclusion to, the inevitable destination of, marching band music. All marching bands are comprised of a certain special kind of individual: lovers of music and mischief, oddballs, darkly comic, esoteric but earthy, fans of spectacle, traditionally untraditional, not suited for the football field (but game enough to play a key role on one every autumn Friday) — what the folk duo Small Potatoes calls “eclectomaniacs.” I can say this lovingly as a former band geek myself. (First trumpet, Greenhills High School, ’84-’87; Third trumpet, Northwestern University Marching Band, ’88-’91 and, yes, former NUMB Spirit Leader; Go Cats!) Nutjobs like us pour our hearts into our passions, and who cares what anyone thinks. For band geeks, one of those passions effectively disappears on the day we graduate from college, so it stands to reason that someone out there found a way to return to the joy of making rowdy, football-field-sized music on big, blatting horns. Marching bands as a music have been static for decades; marching bands as a movement just took a Great Leap Forward.
Good for you, band geeks. Blow, horns, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! For the rest of you, catch a Mucca Pazza show sometime if you’d like something a little different in your musical diet.
It’s a good time to let your Nerd Flag fly. As Retort-regular Desert Son pointed out in the comments section recently, when John Hodgman can call the Leader of the Free World a geek, we are truly living the “Revenge of the Nerds.”