Mucca Pazza marches forth at the High Noon.
Members of the Chicago ensemble Mucca Pazza style themselves an "astounding circus punk marching band," and they are indeed astounding. Last night at the High Noon Saloon, Mucca Pazza treated a (sadly small) audience to a lavish, energetic, at moments bewildering show that, sure enough, brought a punk sensibility to marching band music -- a genre that is, let's face it, badly in need of retooling.
The group's tweaking of marching band conventions began with the fashions. Mucca Pazza's disorderly uniform mostly consists of mismatched bits of marching band apparel (a plume here, epaulets there), seemingly recovered from thrift stores. Some of the musicians, who ranged in age from 20ish to 40ish, added weird accessories: One had a Hello Kitty purse, and another wore a large pin that said "I (heart) band."
Then there was the marching itself, which was hardly militaristic. Just before Mucca Pazza's set began (after turns by local favorites the New Kentucky Quarter and Chicago's Low Skies), most of the band's members silently filed to the back of the saloon. On the stage, two women began playing a doleful waltz on twin accordions, and the marchers -- percussionists, trumpeters, trombonists, saxophonists, a cheerleader -- made their way forward. (Most went down the aisles, but some pushed their way through the audience.) Their marching was fluid and loping, and as they entered the dance floor, they began waltzing in swirling circles.
After the opening song, the bandleader, a man with an impressive grey beard, blew staccato bursts on a referee's whistle, and Mucca Pazza played a funky number that, with its syncopated drumming and brass riffs, sounded as much like New Orleans brass band music as it did anything by John Philip Sousa.
The bandleader spoke stiffly to the audience through a bullhorn, and then came the rest of the brisk, 45 minute set. In the course of it, Mucca Pazza also explored klezmer and reggae music, as well as football cheers. There also were strong elements of circus music, but the circus proved even more influential in the stage manner of the musicians who, like circus clowns, raced around the entirety of the room (and up to the balcony) and teased audience members at will. When songs ended, the cheerleader did celebratory leaps and kicks.
The experience was otherworldly, and immersive. At one point the cheerleader hit me on the head with a pom pom, and later a trombonist nearly caught my foot in his instrument. Near the end of the set, the bandleader once again took up his megaphone to stiffly thank the "Noon High Saloon," as he archly put it. Then the group performed a finale that began with ferocious high kicking and concluded with the seeming collapse of every band member. They lay twitching on the floor of the High Noon Saloon, and the crowd roared.