With pounding drums, brassy horns, dancing beauties, colorful costumes and an all-around spectacle of a stage show, there's nothing stilted about the MarchFourth Marching Band.
However, if you count the stilt walkers and their acrobatics, there actually is something stilted about the Portland-based marching band, performing Sunday at the Domino Room in Bend (see “If you go”). The group looks as though its dozens of members just marched off the playa at Burning Man and kept wandering.
As MarchFourth's bandleader, John Averill, 43, is the man tasked with keeping track of its members — not a small job considering it has, oh, 35 members.
“Our touring band is smaller,” he said by phone from Portland on Monday after a weekend trip to play in Canada. “We have like 35 people, but we only tour with 20. ... It's more like a team where you have a big roster to draw from.” If one trumpeter or saxophonist calls in sick, there's always someone else to step into line and keep the party going.
Averill said that MarchFourth started in 2003 when he and a couple of friends decided to put together a New Orleans-style marching band, based on the brass ensembles that traditionally gathered to play dirges for funeral processions, then broke into uptempo tunes.
For Averill, the occasion was a Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras party in Portland.
“At the time, I was putting together events and parties and trading bands for the events,” he said. “We got together, picked a date, chose some songs to play, rehearsed for two weeks, played the party, and that was pretty much it.”
The date was March 4, in case you're wondering how MarchFourth chose a name. Back then, the group featured four horns, 10 drummers and eight dancers. Stilt walkers were also on hand. The group played seven covers by the likes of Fela Kuti, Fleetwood Mac and Rebirth Brass Band, among others.
“So it was pretty big right off the bat,” said Averill, adding that, “I was really looking at putting the band together for one night. I was kind of surprised that it kept going.”
It kept going, he believes, because two weeks after that first show, the group performed successfully at a Portland peace march shortly before the start of the Iraq War. “I think that's actually what sort of solidified the group, more than anything, that sense that we had something interesting going on,” Averill said.
Reactions to the band “were pretty much positive from the get-go. I don't know why,” Averill said. “We weren't the tightest band in the beginning, but what's always been there is an element of fun.”
In its first 10 months, MarchFourth — also known as M4 — played 34 shows, including dates with the Youngblood Brass Band and fellow Portlanders Pink Martini. Its third show was at The Grove in Bend, recalled Averill.
But M4 wasn't quite fully formed.
“What we've done over the years is build a bigger horn section. We've definitely become more of a horn-driven band. It's just that, at the (beginning), I didn't know more than a few horn players in town,” he said. “We've evolved over the years (into) a big, high-energy stage show. We can still march, but we've sort of developed it into more of a big-band.”
Averill, who plays a wireless electric bass in the group and has a rock background, said that some members of MarchFourth have experience from playing in marching bands in high school and college.
M4's members are also artists, designers and craftspeople who make their own stilts, costumes and equipment, including drum harnesses made from recycled bike parts.
In addition to playing covers, about 12 members of the group contribute original songs. “Space Hole,” composer and saxophonist Robin Jackson's entry in to the 2007 International Songwriting Competition, took third place in the instrumental category.
M4 has yet to write as a group, but Averill said it's a goal in the future.
There are advantages to having such a big band, he said.
“The ego gets kind of diffused. We're traveling in a bus with 22 people; there's really not a lot of room for drama. People pretty much behave themselves. ... If you have a problem with someone for a day or so until you work it out, you don't really have to be stuck next to them in a seat. A four-piece band traveling in a bus, it could be like a pressure-cooker in there.”