The bands come marching in this weekend as HONK! FEST rings in October, packing every street, corner, and hidden orifice of Davis Square with costume-clad marching bands and booming, bursting music.
Honk! began six years ago with the mission to revamp the long standing relationship between taking activism to the streets and music. “We started out with 13 bands, playing in tucked away spots around Davis Square,” says Honk! co-founder Mary Curtin, the festival’s publicist and a current member of Dirty Water Brass Band. “We relied mainly on capturing the imagination of passers-by, who stopped and stuck around to give us a listen.”
This year, nearly 30 bands are participating in the original Boston Honk!, and there are satellite festivals across the country in Austin, Seattle, Brooklyn, and Providence. The festival is always non-profit and is run entirely by volunteers and communities dedicated to keeping Honk! thriving and growing. “We do our best to find all the performers places to crash, never mind feed them,” adds Curtin. “Folks in the neighborhood are incredibly generous in opening up their doors to Honk!, and the local businesses in Davis Square have been super in helping us feed everyone.”
Honk! bands combine and re-imagine a mixture of musical traditions ranging from classic New Orleans brass to Balkan beats with Afro Brazilian flair. The communal experience and spirit of Honk! is a product of both the energies of the performers and the enthusiasm of their audiences: These bands remind anyone in their vicinity that music is not a spectator sport, that it calls for participation.
Some Honk! bands formed specifically to take a stand. This year’s newcomers, Madison, Wisconsin's “Milwaukee Molotov Marchers,” joined in action against their state’s infamously regressive new governor, Scott Walker. Others are decidedly anti-imperialist and use their inclusive performances to rally and support any cause they believe in. “Activist groups will often stage their gathering to be in sync with a Honk! event,” says Curtin. They’ve even gotten calls to “deploy” a Honk! band to a rally on the Boston Common. “There’s nothing like raising the energy level of a rally if a HONK! band participates in it.”
Honk! Fest begins on Friday night with a performance at Johnny D’s Uptown in Somerville and continues in Davis Square on throughout Saturday. The bands of Honk! will parade down Mass. Ave. on Sunday afternoon to combine with Harvard Square’s Oktoberfest, and the music will conclude on a harbor cruise Sunday evening. Both the Friday night event and Sunday evening cruise are $10 general admission. Everything else is free and open to all ages.
All of the bands bring something invaluable to the festival and deserve attention. Here are just a few to look out for.
WHAT CHEER? BRIGADE
<<< DOWNLOAD: "CCMFC" [mp3] >>>
Providence’s What Cheer? Brigade, a 19-piece brass band, are a HONK! fixture and haven’t missed a year. Their sound, described as “an aggressive mix of Bollywood, the Balkans, New Orleans, Samba, and hip-hop, played with the intensity of metal,” is overwhelmingly energetic, and they dress like a deranged high school marching band.
What Cheer? has roamed the grounds of Newport Folk Festival the past two years, giving pop-up performances between sets. Dedicated to taking street band culture beyond the street, they’ve worked with musicians of all genres, from Dan Deacon and Ninjasonik to Okkervil River and Wolf Parade.
Early this month they participated at an Artists’ Talk at the multipurpose Space Gallery in Portland, Maine. “We spoke a lot about our history as a band, and its relationship to street band culture and Honk! more generally,” writes Dan Schleifer, What Cheer?‘s sousaphonist, in an email. “We try to push beyond the ways that this re-emergent street band culture is sometimes ghettoized.”
The band recently released a live album, Classy: Live from Pawtucket, which is about as close as one can get to understanding the ruckus generated by their live show without actually experiencing it. Watch this video of the band crashing into Times Square during evacuation for Hurricane Irene in late August, much to the dismay of some disgruntled cops.
<<< DOWNLOAD: "Black Chicken" [mp3] >>>
Though they are traversing the country to make their HONK! Boston debut this year, Seattle’s Titanium Sporkestra are well-versed in the fest’s culture. Band leader David Stern -- who signs off his emails woth “Spork on!” -- is a producer of HONK! Fest West in Seattle, and they’ve repeatedly played what is arguably the mother of all progressive community events in North America, Burning Man.
Stern is enthusiastic for the future of both his band and the new crop of Honk-ers popping up across the country. “Every year new bands come to Honk! with a limited selection of songs and sometimes even under skilled,” he writes in an email. “Upon seeing the other more experienced bands, they return home newly inspired, and come back the next year blowing our minds and ears.”
Titanium Sporkestra sound like a traditional marching band, but with a percussion session that’s out for blood. While they’re known to incorporate riffs from popular music -- from Black Sabbath to Sir Mix-A-Lot -- into their routines, there is a definitive hardcore edge to their sound. This is possibly because of all the drums, or possibly because in the video below they use a couple refrains from Darth Vader’s intro in the middle of a Seattle department store while dressed up in Santa Claus outfits.
RUDE MECHANICAL ORCHESTRA
<<< DOWNLOAD: "Baraat" [mp3] >>>
New York City’s famous Rude Mechanical Orchestra formed in spring 2004 and is now a 30-something piece marching band. They lend their spectacle of bright green, brass and glitter to communities working for social justice, and blur the line between music and protest seamlessly. Not only do they make a megaphone sound melodic, RMO makes their decisions as a democratic collective, demonstrating that their mission to support fight oppression is inseparable from their music.
Though their live performances tend to feature ten to 20 band members (not including their Team Awesome dance troupe), RMO’s exuberant presence can make them seem like a virtual Medusa of a marching band, multiplying in numbers as they play.
Their punk rock attitude shines though even the most traditional brass band sound, and they tend to top off their performances with a rendition of Le Tigre’s feminist anthem "Deceptacon," with a couple words changed in the chorus here and there.
BREAD & PUPPET CIRCUS BAND
<<< DOWNLOAD: "Live from Honk! 2010" [mp3] >>>
The history of Honk! Boston is closely tied with the history of Vermont’s legendary Bread & Puppet Theatre and Circus Band. B&P formed in 1963 in New York City as a puppet brigade but quickly expanded their repertoire to music, sculpture and dance as they used their act to fight for social issues, and rallied against the Vietnam War. Over the years, their company has grown into a staple community that reaches out to kindred spirits across the country. It was during a B&P musical protest against the Iraq War on the Boston Commons that Boston’s local Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band came to be, and soon after, Honk! was born.
B&P’s long-standing spirit inspires many younger bands involved with the festivals. Their music is often traditional, focused on folk and brass songs passed down through generations, played with seasoned professionalism. They might not dress like anarchist punks or wear gimp masks like some of their fellow Honk! bands, but their show is inspiring for its longevity and fervor.