Like all the bands that bassist John Averill was putting together back around 2003, this one was intended to last for just one day. But what a day it was: the date was the 4th of March - or better for his purposes, March Fourth - and it was also Mardi Gras, so the occasion essentially demanded a brass-heavy, marching procession, with the name MarchFourth Marching Band. Averill and his associate, cymbals player Dan Stauffer, rose to the occasion and, instead of putting together the usual five-piece rock group, they assembled 27 performers - dancers, stilt walkers, horns, a 10-piece drum section - to perform a set of seven cover tunes at the now defunct Level club in Portland, Ore. It was, no doubt, a memorable date.
But even more significant was what happened exactly two weeks later. America was marching its way toward a war in Iraq, and the anti-war protesters were out in force in Portland. Averill, sympathetic to the protesters' cause, rallied his band to join them in the streets. And the combination of horns and drums, mismatched marching band uniforms, anti-war energy and the street-level setting sparked something.
"There's something about the energy of playing in the street. That's what galvanized the band," the 44-year-old Averill said from a campground in Idaho, where the 23-strong MarchFourth Marching Band touring party - 13 musicians, four dancing stilt walkers and more - had slept the previous night. "Being on street level, you're eye to eye with people, you're really with the people, you're a part of them. And you had that energy of the protests."
Averill and his band mates still, on occasion, look for a hit of that energy that comes with a city-square demonstration; recently the group showed up to entertain and lend some support (and volume) to the Occupy Portland gathering in the city's downtown. Most of their appearances, however, are on stages rather than streets. The band performs tonight at Nottingham Park in Avon as part of the Salute to the USA festivities.
27 moving parts
To Averill, it is a long-shot that MarchFourth would be playing anywhere eight and a half years after those initial dates. Averill, after getting laid off from a Portland-based animation company, had entered the event-production business, as a way of staying in his native Oregon. His specialty was whipping up theme bands designed to play theme parties, and then disband when the party was over. Among his creations was the '70s-style metal group Manaconda, and the Beatles tribute act, Nowhere Band. (Nowhere Band was enough of a hit that it reconvenes once a year for a series of shows known as the White Album Christmas; the band was recently hired to collaborate with the Eugene Ballet.)
Most of the bands Averill put together were rock-band size, with four to six members. The MarchFourth Marching Band was a relative monster, with its 27 moving parts, and the last thing Averill imagined was that it would have a life beyond those first two outings.
"I'd played in a lot of bands, and this one seemed completely improbable," Averill said of the prospect of continued life for MarchFourth. "People in the band said, 'Wow, that was a lot of fun - but there's no way to keep it together.' I took that as motivation. Not to prove them wrong, but I thought, this is a special project, and I'll try to make it sustainable. The irony is the largest band is the one that stuck together."
Sustainability has been the biggest challenge - even more than the fact that Averill had had zero experience in marching bands, zero experience in writing horn charts, only a passing interest in marching band music. But MarchFourth has become a hit - a unique act that has opened for Fleetwood Mac, No Doubt and the Neville Brothers; toured Germany; and produced four albums, including the very worthwhile "Magnificent Beast," produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. MarchFourth has figured out a way to tour by staying in friends' houses and campgrounds rather than motels when on the road. (It's a rare event when a promoter springs for roofs and beds for the entire throng.)
"I didn't realize it would be like this - touring, paying ourselves, and having it really working," Averill said. "We have gas, food and payroll, and that's about it."
A touring band
Where they play - clubs and festivals as opposed to city streets - isn't the only thing that has changed about MarchFourth over its eight-year history. The band seems to be a constant work in progress: At that first gig, the make-up was 10 drummers and a few horn players; that ratio has been reversed. "That took a while to figure out, that it sounds better with more horns. Now we have a less-is-more philosophy to our drum section," Averill said.
Another change becomes evident when listening to "Magnificent Beast." MarchFourth is, of course, primarily a live act - the stilt walkers and fire eaters don't come across too vividly on CD - and Averill says that, despite the difficulties presented by the road, MarchFourth will continue to be a touring band.
Playing on stages, MarchFourth has been able to refine its sound far more than they could when playing on the street; Averill says that makes them sound more like a rock band. There's not a whole lot of room for marching in a club, though at summertime gigs, the band often leads a procession to the venue. Which they might just do tonight.