HONK! If You Love Marching Bands & Ironies

It’s not too early to mark your calendars for next Columbus Day Weekend’s HONK! Festival in Somerville, Mass. HONK! assembles activist street bands from across the country and gives them plenty of room to … HONK!

Here’s the Boston Globe’s preview of this year’s festival.  And click on the photography link in the left bar for a selection of my shots.

If you come next year – and HONK! is definitely worth a weekend trip – on Saturday, you’ll hear eight hours of mainly band music at six Davis Square locations. The organizers have done a brilliant job in locating venues so there’s almost no sound overlap. Each band gets an hour to unleash their repertory and repartee.

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I didn’t see all the bands, but of those I saw the best were the Leftist Marching Band (Portsmouth, N.H.) and the Brass Liberation Orchestra (San Francisco/Oakland). (The band pictures on the HONK! site don’t capture their spirits. I will post some shortly which I hope do.)

Whether the uniformly un-uniform band motif is camp, castoff, classic or clashing, their music is invariably good. The BLO’s Roma tunes were eery, danceable and infectious. A strong klezmer influence showed in several bands. Many classics, of course, such as ‘When the Saints’ got their time, but I was pleasantly surprised by their creative arrangements. I heard not a note of Sousa.

On Sunday, a parade forms in Davis Square and marches on Harvard Square, a little more than a mile away. For veterans of the 60s, the symbolism of the new Harvard Square marching on the malled Harvard Square was delicious if bitter-sweet.

My Sunday musical favorites were The Emperor Norton Stationary Marching Band(Somerville) and the Extraordinary Rendition Band(Providence, R.I.) None of the bands made the slightest effort to do anything but amble, something that fit the mood of the relaxed crowds. One did a hot Sousa medley.

But what’s a parade without clowns, costumes and floats? The bands clowned, as did Brueghel birds and astounding stilt walkers. One woman actually danced on her stilts.

Politics and somber issues got their play – though there wasn’t a candidate in sight. (One can only imagine the Republican photo ops….)

A boat covered with barbed slogans represented the sinking world financial system. Beautiful butterflies – great costumes these — represented the undocumented and immigrants. Bill McKibben’s 350 was represented by a hoard of marchers and a float illustrating the barbecue of Earth. The Somer-villains portrayed the threats to the city’s present comfortable life. And a few Veterans against the War carried stark black-on-white banners. Momentarily, they hushed the crowds they passed.

The parade ended in packed Harvard Square where HONK! met the Harvard Square Business Association’s Octoberfest. Magically the types of vendors who’d peopled stores in the 60s and were driven out for chains and boutiques appeared in booths.

The bands played at various venues. Passim (nee Club 47) offered folk music on Brattle Street and a grossly over amped mainstage inflicted what would have been good Rock at lower decibel levels.

The food was more varied than I remembered, and the Charles Square farmers market stayed open through the afternoon. Apart from the lunatic motorists who were trying to get through the Square, everyone was having a marvelous time.

So, put HONK! on your calendar for next year. It’s sure on mine.

Update 26th October 2010:

See photos now up on the website.