I was hesitant to write about Burning Man, as it is truly something to be experienced in person. The motto during the festival is “no spectators” and thus it should follow that the written word will never do it justice. So, I’ll focus mainly on its growing marching band scene, which is what occupied most of my time out there anyway. Otherwise, I could go on for days with years worth of “This one time, at Burning Man…” stories. If you want these, you’d have to ask in person; they involve a lot of hand gestures. Likewise, this is the only photo I’m posting:
This was my fifth time at Burning Man, after three in a row 2005-07 and a return last year. I was fortunate enough to be gifted a ticket again this year for my participation in the Fire Conclave marching band -the carrot which lured me back last year after I thought I’d somehow moved on. This ticket was even more precious than I realized this year, as Burning Man sold out for the first time in its long history. They capped the ticket sales at 50,000 and closed sales months ago. I try not to acknowledge when I feel like one of the cool kids, but my inclusion in an increasingly exclusive event certainly warmed my heart. With free tickets comes fun responsibility, and my place in Marching Band Camp involved six rehearsals, about ten shows, and various aimless marauding adventures as a band. My only other thought for the week was reconnecting with old friends and enjoying the company of like-minded people. I’ll try to describe the epic nature of it all, but be warned that this will be pretty nonlinear.
The most stunning part of my experience at Burning Man this year was watching how the marching band scene has grown and evolved on the playa (aka where the festival happens). Our camp was comprised of the Fire Conclave All-Stars Marching Band, which was housed in Environmental Encroachment’s shade structure, and Titanium Sporkestra, whose shade structure I squatted for the second year in a row – thanks guys. FCAS only exists at Burning Man, although many of us play together in the outside world. This year, it included members past and present from a variety of bands: EE from Chicago, Minor Mishap from Austin, March Fourth from Portland OR, Sporkestra from Seattle, and a variety of free agents we’ve picked up at Burning Man over the years. I first came to Burning Man playing with Environmental Encroachment and have always stayed in or beside their camp. Titanium Sporkestra started as Weapons of Marching Destruction after a romance at Burning Man in 2007 which resulted in a tattoo of my face on their founder’s arm… Like I said, old stories to be told in person. Needless to say, our camp was dense with history for me and in some ways as close to a home as anything is these days.
One of the classic catch phrases at Burning Man is “Welcome home!” and it is certainly true for many of us who return year after year. This time more than any other, I felt truly at home out there. I had somehow underestimated how important this festival is to who I am, who I’ve become. While every village has its idiots, the majority of folks who choose to survive the rugged conditions out there are wonderful. “Tribe” is a word which gets thrown around in that scene a lot too, but it also carries some weight. Maybe it was the familiarity of the city after five visits, the changing idea of home after years of transience, the huge number of old friends scattered around the festival, or some sense of well-being that finally clicked, but I never for one second felt alone in that vast desert wasteland filled with tens of thousands of strangers.
Back to the web of marching band lore. While our camp included a large number of familiar faces of Honk Fest, minus two percussionists who were working for the Department of Public Works and camped elsewhere, we weren’t the only place to find marching band folks. Loyd Family Players, a samba group from Oakland who has been to Honk as well, had their own camp and only encountered us at the band showdown. Even less represented were the veterans of the scene – March Fourth from Portland, OR and Extra Action from San Francisco – a few members of whom were staying near Center Camp. I went to say hi to the M4 guys on Wednesday afternoon and somehow left with a trombone player who was a wonderful addition to the band and my general experience at Burning Man this year. A cymbal-playing friend from Detroit Party Band (who I stayed with at Mardi Gras this year) was also camped there and was easily inducted into the band as well. I went out exploring with some of their camp one night, took a nap at the temple at one point, and wound up returning there at sunrise.
That camp became a sort of second home for me throughout the week. Besides the stellar company and central location, their camp was right next door to the most incredible bar I found all week. Besides a rotating roster of homebrew beer, mead, and soda, they had a pool table AND foosball! Even better, they had an upright piano and a huge book of songs. One morning, I wandered bleary-eyed over to the bar, only to hear Sporkestra playing on the stage at Center Camp. Throughout the week, I also caught sets by Saloon Ensemble, That Damned Band, and others. The world felt very small this year on the playa. I was honored to watch the temple burn with members of the camp atop their firetruck, a vehicle I had only seen before in M4 publicity photos (at least, I assume it’s the same firetruck).
On my first full day at Burning Man, having arrived at nearly midnight on Monday, I stumbled upon what would become one of my favourite camps this year. The night before, on a very short wander around the neighborhood in search of a supposed steam punk party, I had seen a bunch of people in trench coats and hats reenacting a scene by flashlight in the middle of the road. Intriguing. On my wander the next morning, I passed what looked like a detective agency, complete with a coat rack full of those exact outfits. So, I stopped to investigate further. I mentioned I had my saxophone – as I always did, given the portability of my curved soprano sax – and they asked for a tune. I obliged and they brought me an ice cold Manhattan in a real glass with a cherry and everything! This is no small feat in a desert. I assured them I would return that night with no fewer than ten musicians and play for their opening night party. Vintage cocktails, who could say no?
The detectives had given me an old-fashioned matchbook with the name of a fake garage on one side and the password to their speakeasy on the other. As a native of Chicago, the whole auto shop turned prohibition-era bar idea resonated deeply with me. It wasn’t hard to get my fellow Chicago musicians on board for the idea either, especially once I had control of the cargo trailer with all of our tubas and drums (more on this shortly). After one organized gig, we headed for our second impromptu show of the day, which was practically around the corner from camp anyway. We found a nondescript tent with an old auto repair sign and a single light on one side, under which a guy in an old mechanic jumpsuit was polishing a wrench in a very suspicious manner.
“I brought you a marching band!”
“What’s the password?”
“I… um… brought you a marching band.”
“I see that. What’s the password?”
We finally got inside. The folks at that camp were beside themselves with the sincerity of my promise and the size of the band. I don’t think they were expecting a tuba and a sousaphone, for one thing. The band played a long, boozy, daring set full of tunes that none of us knew but still somehow pulled off. It was one of those simple moments at Burning Man that maybe only a few dozen people remember, but it stands out more anything in their memory years later. The cocktails were fantastic and the bartender was a beast of proficiency. Our fire tuba player sang a Dixieland standard and there was swing dancing in the corner. My favourite dancing partner from Mardi Gras this year, who I hadn’t seen since we were both in New Orleans, had shown up at marching band camp out of the blue. So, we revisited our acrobatic dancing in the speakeasy.
On another night, when my trombone companion and I were trying to find warmth and shelter after hanging out in hammocks under the pier watching the sunset rather than putting on warmer clothes, we accidentally wandered past the garage and were met with the same image. I told him he HAD to see this. It was a quieter night without our band, of course, but just as lovely in there. There was drinking and dancing and conversations with people in fabulous outfits. Every so often, a group of confused people would be shoved into the bar and break into smiles. The main point of their camp is to find unwitting people on the road outside and make them act out an old movie script via cue cards. They even have costumes for them and a boombox soundtrack. The actors are then brought into the speakeasy and treated to drinks. It’s brilliant, even if it does border on forcing people to LARP. I was beyond enchanted with their camp.
My other favourite theme camp was the French Quarter. It was actually a village, containing a variety of camps, but the replica row of Bourbon St. houses defined the area. The FCAS had been booked to play two shows there, the first of which was of course Mardi Gras on Tuesday. We started after sunset, although the party had been raging all day. The pickle martini bar across the street had just opened up that night as well, so it was perfect timing for an open-air party. We played a variety of tunes all together out front of the building, then some of us took to the balcony and played over the sides as Titanium Spokestra did some tunes. We were then fed what we all agreed was the most delicious gumbo we’d ever had, tail-on shrimp and everything. After all of the festivities were over, the pilot of our band’s cargo trailer was nowhere to be seen. So, with my years of pedicab expertise behind me, I was voted most qualified to drunkenly ride the bike back to camp. Of course, the bike and its cargo of tubas and drums went on a variety of adventures before returning to camp, but they did make it back successfully and the bike’s owner was grateful in the morning that I had stolen it for him. Mardi Gras! The other gig at French Quarter camp was the Jazz Funeral for the Man on Sunday, which was a much more subdued afternoon event, but equally joyous and whimsical. New Orleans is also tied deeply into my own history at Burning Man, as Hurricane Katrina struck during my first year on the playa. I participated in the memorial service on the temple bus, which included performances by Reverend Billy and his choir, Joan Baez, and our pickup marching band backing them up. It was beautiful and touching and I made many new friends that day. Considering that Mardi Gras became my surrogate festival for Burning Man during my two-year absence, I also found it fitting that a little piece of that spirit found its way to the playa this year.
As if we didn’t have enough on our musical plate that week, many of our camp participated in the Trojan Horse performance. I don’t know what was more impressive, a bunch of marching band punks getting up for 10am rehearsals of classical sheet music, or the crowds gathering daily to applaud each time we finished the piece. It was touching to see this sort of phenomenon in the face of countless techno parties. Also, the FCAS competed at Center Camp with a relatively complex original tune by one of our members which we had learned entirely by ear that week, so I was generally impressed with the skills of the musicians this year. As for the Trojan horse, true to form everything went contrary to plan on the day of the actual performance. The whole spectacle started late and then the horse was pulled to the gates of Troy without ceremony, simply because the volunteers got restless. Classic. Half of the band had to leave for the FCAS gig at Center Camp and never got to play the piece we’d been rehearsing all week. I also hadn’t gotten to visit the popular absinthe bar in the horse’s belly. The Battle of the Marching Bands ran late too, so the Horse lost one of its archers and was hit with fewer burning arrows than expected. Nevertheless, it went up in flames, and a few lucky bandmates scrambled up the side of their nearby schoolbus to witness some of the burn. I missed it entirely, as a large number of friends who I hadn’t seen yet cleverly turned up at the marching band competition – the most obvious place to find me all week.
As I said, the most touching part of my whole week was watching the evolution of the marching band scene on the playa. When bands like Infernal Noise Brigade (RIP), Extra Action, and later March Fourth ruled the dust, Honk Fest was many years in the future. Now, those bands are represented at Burning Man only through the presence of a few key members, although representatives from the latter two judged the Battle of the Marching Bands. Meanwhile, Honk bands such as Environmental Encroachment and then Titanium Sporkestra have dominated the playa and are constantly confused for the previous bands and even each other. Burning Band, which contains several members of Los Trancos Woods Community Marching Band, has been a staple for many years on the playa and – like FCAS – exists only at Burning Man. What really got to me this year was how intertwined everything has been getting.
The Fire Conclave All-Stars was already a mash-up of many large bands, but for the actual burn night we threw in several more members of Sporkestra. I spent the early part of our setup excitedly chanting “Four tubas!” We had a sousaphone (played by a lady Australian doctor/harpist), a marching tuba, another massive tuba, and the infamous fire sousaphone (played by a longtime friend who also happened to have directed the Simpsons movie, another long story for another time). The two lady trombone players from Sporkestra were almost giddy about how much fun the chaos of this band was. We played a set for the crowd as they waited for the main spectacle, then tried not to get too distracted by the stunning fire performances on either side of us. This year, the burning of the man (a giant wooden symbol at the center of the festival, in case you don’t know) was spectacular. The only thing I’ve seen there that might have surpassed it was the Oil Rig burn in 2007, which was so huge and nuclear cloud looking that many of us felt lucky to be alive when it was over. The fireworks before the man burned this year were especially stunning, and seeing them up so close is a huge privilege. The burn itself was large and began with a huge green explosion.
We had been warned about the imminent swarm that would come after the man fell, and we all jumped up and rushed for our gear cart as soon as it happened. Like technicolor moths, the crowd raced to the open flames, and with them came the other musicians who had not been granted access to the inner circle. We then struck up a combined set between FCAS and Sporkestra, playing the songs we all knew in common. This continued on to a set outside of Thunderdome, a long rest in a hidden bar with an abandoned frozen margarita machine, and another set at the microbrew in center camp. What impressed me more than anything else was the fusion at hand. The combined bands played three original Hungry March Band tunes that night, although none of the HMB (besides a couple of us who have played/danced with them in the past) made it to Burning Man this year. When we arrived at the last bar and had lost all the current EE members, we busted out into one of their original tunes anyway, then followed it with an Extra Action tune, knowing full well that one of its founders was camped there might hear it. Sporkestra also plays What Cheer Brigade’s cover of an Infernal Noise Brigade original, even though a considerable amount of the band used to be part of the INB. At the Billion Bunny March (while a unicorn and a bunny fought it out in the Thunderdome and the carrots continued to be restless) our ringer from March Fourth latched one of their songs onto a beat that the drummers were already playing, another horn player and I remembered the melody line from days past, and the rest of the musicians faked it rather well. The interplay and respect between the marching bands, present and not, was simply stunning this year.
My last night at Burning Man, friends and I tried to find a rumoured Mutaytor show, but instead wound up retiring to our camps for a bit. In similar ways, I had missed seeing Beats Antique and Lucent Dossier that week as well. I returned to camp, which was all but deserted, then set out across the playa to meet up with two of the March Fourth horn players at Dustfish, which I’m pretty sure is also the new home of Sunday’s traditional marathon Black Sabbath Pancake Breakfast (clean the techno out of your ears before heading home). DJ GlobalRuckus had asked us to play along with his set and it worked out really well. The horns were all fairly versed in Balkan beats source material, plus we’d played together before, although not all three at the same time. Trumpet, trombone, soprano sax made a nice horn section and their DJ friend was delighted to have us. The social part of my night ended back at center camp with good conversations and an upright piano.
What I neglected to mention was the news I got just before heading to the temple burn. I had somehow missed the ride out with the firetruck, so I took a minute to try checking my email/voicemail in the cafe at center camp. The wifi is almost as elusive as the phone reception, but far more possible as the crowds thin out on Sunday. I got word from Amtrak that my train from Reno to Chicago, set to depart in less than 24 hours, had been cancelled and I should call for more information. While enough reception can be grasped to download a voicemail or get a text, phone calls are pretty impossible there. I had to wait until more people left for that to be worth trying, certainly until the mass exodus after the temple burn. I found a mutant vehicle heading out to the temple and caught a ride, surprising everyone at the fire truck with my resourcefulness in finding them so quickly amid the dense swarm of art cars. The night went on and after the aforementioned end of my social night, it was time to get to work on escaping Burning Man.
I asked the baristas for guidance even before I asked the rangers (shows where my loyalties lie), then asked the radio station before trying the rangers again. I couldn’t get through to the Amtrak website via my smart phone or place a call to them, so I was trying to find anywhere with a computer or phone that I could beg to use. No dice, and I knew it would be that way. Radical self-reliance. The graveyard shift at the radio station poured me a strong drink and I headed off into the sunrise in search of a phone reception. Suddenly, in the middle of nothing, I got through to Amtrak. No luck there either, the trains were in fact cancelled for at least a week, but they could reroute me via bus and add days to my travel time. No thanks, I’d take the refund and find my own way home. The guy on the phone was very cool, though, and I think I convinced him to go to Burning Man next year.
I had my whole finding-a-ride route laid out before me. First, I stopped by Burners Without Borders, where many people from Chicago camp. It was the same answers as before, everyone either flew, has a full vehicle, or is making a long vacation out of their trip home. If I didn’t have rehearsal in NYC looming in my future, I would have headed towards the Pacific instead in an instant. I ran into a friend at that camp and he wandered with me for a while. I asked everyone with a license plate East of the Mississippi and North of the Mason-Dixon line if they had room to Chicago. Nope. I tried searching out a couple more likely places, finally heading to see the guy we had picked up in the airport. I knew he and his brother were getting a room in Reno that night, which was good to know in case I got stranded there, but I also wanted a chance to say farewell. I also scouted out a friend from Toronto in order to do the same. As I left his camp and continued starting at license plates and asking for rides. I decided to walk down the street where my camp was, knowing there were some Chicago and Minneapolis folks there. I saw a giant green bus with people outside of it but California license plates and another green bus with no apparent plates or passengers, so I wandered on. I saw a jeep driving towards me in the distance and had a good feeling about it. Sure enough, it had Illinois plates. I yelled in his window (as nobody drives fast out there because of the dust it kicks up), “Are you driving to Chicago?” I could see that he had no room for passengers, but felt the need to ask. He told me he was – not in the jeep, which belonged to his sister, but in a schoolbus. Excellent, that was exactly what I had been silently hoping for! I climbed onto the spare tire on the back of the jeep and we drove to the bus. They were all just waking up and the answer would have been no if one of the owners hadn’t woken up and called me back. They did a head count and it turned out there was room for one more person, making a total of fourteen on the bus. I borrowed a bicycle from one of them as collateral, which I returned with a box of leftover wine, and ran off to say goodbyes to friends across the playa. I also stopped into the radio station and made an announcement about the status of Amtrak trains, as I knew it would come as an unpleasant shock to many people, and the sooner they knew the better.
The schoolbus pulled up at camp just as I was about to tear down my tent. Its owners hopped out and helped me finish up, I gave them yet another bottle of wine, and I boarded the bus. I plopped down on the dusty couch and the first thing I remember hearing was “So, did you fall in love this year?” Of course I did; half the bus probably did too. It sounds so simple, but if you’re out there and open to the possibility, it’s bound to happen every year. It’s the intensity and the potential for it to last which vary wildly from person to person. I’m still discovering my own answers to these questions, as I do every year I leave the playa, but I’m optimistic. Think of a fanciful city filled with your favourite people and a culture which encourages love and openness. Now imagine it’s twice as wonderful as what you’ve just pictured.