It’s Thanksgiving already and I am finally beginning to post about everything I’ve been doing since the beginning of October. In fact, I’ve ducked into a candlelit bar near my second orphan Thanksgiving dinner of the day in order to finish this one. I’m watching Charlie Brown Thanksgiving over a mug of hot buttered rum, wearing a rockabilly polka dot dress and combat boots, huddled against the cool brick wall at the far end of the bar. So much has happened since I came back from Europe. Most recently, a hurricane devastated parts of the East Coast, then a metaphorical storm laid waste to my vague life plans. I have already fallen five posts behind in the last month or two, but rest assured that updates on my life after Europe are slowly on their way. Before all of the unexpected chaos of late, I fell off the blogging wagon after a straight month of daily chronicles had made it feel all too routine. In the meantime, a lot has transpired, including my first return to Honk Fest after missing not only the previous year’s festivities in Somerville, but the two consecutive festivals in both Seattle and Austin. I was thrilled to be back in the thick of my community again, so of course adventure has once again gotten in the way of writing. As a result, here is a quite long account of the various Honk events in Boston and Providence.
Day 1 – HONK!
Just forty-eight hours after my flight from Europe landed at O’Hare, I was back at the airport waiting for my plane to Boston. Just as I was just about to board, I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard “What band are you in?” Turning to see a punky girl slightly younger than myself, I instantly assumed she meant World/Inferno. I realized soon enough that she had seen my sax case and was probably just on her way to Honk as well. “It’s complicated.” Sure enough, we had played together with Environmental Encroachment during a steampunk event at Reggie’s a while back. It’s always fun to accidentally take a plane with someone you know, and I was pleased to realize I wouldn’t be navigating my way to the venue alone.
We arrived at the airport in Boston and worked on my flask while waiting for the city bus, which was free and dropped us off inside the subway station – major points for Boston transport. It was, however, a long and drizzling walk to the square where the pre-Honk show was happening. It felt good to be once again wandering unfamiliar streets, following the distant sounds of a brass band. Despite the light rain, there was a decent crowd gathered to see the bands. We arrived in the middle of Church Marching Band’s set. They had a broad repertoire and contagious energy, so of course I fell for them instantly. I decided not to sit in with anyone that night, just relax and watch. Normally, I play with Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band, but I have yet to learn most of the new songs they’ve written. During their set, I picked a dancing partner out of the crowd. He had a classic old vaudeville outfit with a face to match and generally looked like someone who should know how to swing dance. Sure enough, I had found my dance partner for the next solid week. It turned out that he was the trumpet player from Church Marching Band. Why is it always the trumpet player?
As the event was winding down, a few of us straggled behind. I was trying to decide whether to take a ride with a friend from Boston or go on a less predictable adventure with an old friend from California. If you’ve read any of my other posts in the past, you can surely guess. In the meantime, still in the square, one sax player began insistently playing the bass line from “Sat” until finally I couldn’t resist anymore and grabbed the closest woodwind at hand and joined him with the melody. Brass band musicians are so easy, and soon everyone had joined in. I handed the instrument back to its owner and pulled out my sopranino… then we all boarded the public bus. The seats were full of blaring musicians and a few confused passengers. My phone was having issues, so I took no photos or videos that night, which made the memories all the more special and surreal. We finally got out at Davis Square and most of our company headed to continue drinking and playing music at a nearby church. My friend and I headed to where he was staying and immediately ran into the Brass Messengers, who had just gotten into town.
I awoke as I always do at Honk, in a strange but cozy home belonging to an incredibly tolerant person. My friend and I had a lovely chat with our host in the morning about how Honk Fest is better than Burning Man and feels more like home than anywhere else. I hung around the house for a while, sorting out tech issues and finally deleting all of the old texts in my phone as a cathartic cleanse. After a bit of breakfast, I set out into the world with all of the belongings I would be traveling with until Christmas. Within minutes, I had managed to rip holes in a coat I hadn’t even worn yet, dragging it under my rolling bag. I became increasingly disgruntled until I walked past a man with a sign which read “SMILE!” – which I obeyed, until I realized I had just walked a half mile in the wrong direction. On my absurd move to my next sleeping place, I ran into a member of Environmental Encroachment who gave me the rest of his cup of coffee, then encountered all of Brass Liberation Orchestra at the train station. Gradually, I also ran into members of Rome’s Pink Puffers, who I had not seen in years, yet they looked just the same. Finally, I arrived at my friend’s friend’s apartment on the other end of Somerville and met my new host. She was charming and we hung out while I fixed my jacket with some duct tape and used some bungee cords to fashion a double-barreled case for my saxes. I then walked over to see Church Marching Band, getting more coffee from a random EE member on the way. True to the shape of my day, I had just missed their set. We jumped on a bus and headed back to the other side of Somerville.
On the way in, I discovered that my new dancing partner was way younger than he looked, and that most of his band hovered around the age of twenty-one. He then laughingly pointed out that the band dinner was happening in a room labeled Somerville Senior Center. Thanks, kid. A couple of them played some old songs on the piano while the guys from Young Fellaz Brass Band looked on and I did some writing on my computer. Dinner was excellent as always and I hugged a lot of long-lost friends and acquaintances. One musician who was sitting on the floor recognized me and we realized that we had both been checking each other out on a bus in Brooklyn a couple of months earlier; how strange and awkward.
After dinner, I headed out to join ENSMB for the lantern parade, just making it in time. I also cut out of the parade slightly early in order to make it to Johnny D’s for Brass Messengers’ set. They had asked me to play with them that weekend, so I suggested I join them for that show, since tickets were expensive and I would otherwise not be going. It worked out well, especially considering that I hadn’t played with them in years and they had clearly meanwhile written new songs. I followed their sax and clarinet players as well as I could, plus took solos. Afterwards, it was bizarre to receive compliments for a band I’m not even in. During other sets, I made sure to take some time for myself in a corner, listening to the music while I caught up on some writing, still reeling from my time in Europe. The club was packed, so there wasn’t a lot of room for dancing, although I was right up front for Pink Puffers. It was pretty much just like old times, except I had a better haircut and wasn’t dancing on a table. After the show ended, it didn’t take long for a jam session to break out and head for the square. The organizers quickly diffused it, choosing my dancing partner out of everyone else, asking him to talk everyone else into stopping the music. I felt good about my judge of character.
Back where I was staying, my instrument chameleon friend from Barrage Band and our host had already made a crater-sized dent in the rye and bourbon, into which I quickly crawled to join them. We soon got into a lengthy discussion about a certain cabaret punk performer who recently asked for local volunteers to play in her large band, claiming that she could not afford to tour and pay the musicians. The three of us had significantly different perspectives and opinions on the matter – myself a broke horn player, my friend a professional-ish horn player with a day job (who had indeed done one of these shows), and his friend who was trying hard to remain impartial. We never came to any conclusion, just ruffled each others feathers somewhat constructively.
It took me until the next morning to put words to my frustrations about the topic. Having spent the past eight years paring down my lifestyle in order to make artistic pursuits my focus, I have strong opinions on how musicians are treated and paid. What really gets to me about this attitude, which is exemplified in this gesture but has become obvious through her various online pleas for fans to send her donations, is that it says to the world at large that making a living as a professional musician is not an option. Sure, plenty of musicians have day jobs to support their music careers, but when someone who is relatively “famous” (and married to someone even more “famous” than herself on top of it) cries wolf about being poor, it sends a very bad message indeed to the public at large… especially to those who might one day be paying their own backing band. As a horn player, I find this particularly threatening, as it labels us as a group less deserving of income than the lead singer.
I grew up in a family of professional musicians, so I know that it is indeed possible to make a living in music. At least, it was. Personally, due in part to my own ethics about what sort of work I am willing to do, there have been times when I don’t have money for food and either dumpster dive or don’t eat. I also haven’t paid rent in five years. This doesn’t mean that I am entitled to go on the internet and declare that people should send me money because I refuse to find other work to supplement my career. I’m not even that proud of how many friends I have allowed to do me favours so that I can retain my independence. Like the person in question, I also made a large part of my money busking (mostly with puppet shows, though) for a number of years, so I understand the source of her instincts. In fact, this is probably part of why I am so quick to criticize, because these same sorts of thoughts have surely run through my head at some point. Hustlers know their own kind. Even so, do we bind together as impoverished artists and try to change the system, or do we single ourselves out as more deserving than the rest and let the less aggressive ones struggle below for scraps?
So, there we all were at Honk Fest, an event where the musicians are not paid and the bands are doing well if they don’t lose money after their travel stipend. However, it is a free festival and not-for-profit, which is a whole different matter from a rock tour. My general belief is that if someone is getting paid, then everyone should be getting paid. I’m more than willing to play for free, if it’s for a good cause and not just so someone else can make more money at the expense of my efforts. I believe in payment according to need and, pardon me, but I don’t think she is particularly needy. I couldn’t help but rant.
The next morning, I awoke a bit hung over and wrote out much of the thoughts immediately above, then began to put together my outfit and bag for the day. I had learned my lesson the day before about trying to carry both saxes. It was impossible to get into my alto case without dismantling the whole setup, plus everyone was so curious about the sopranino that it was a shame to play anything else. My new craft project was finding a way to carry all of the tiny slivo bottles I had brought back from my stops in Eastern European gas stations. The ones in my belt pockets were especially amusing. It was a lot of fun taking small groups of people on tasting flights out of my various pockets. I had an easy time with my sax, which I keep in a case I made out of irrigation tubing and carried in the “Anarchy is for Lovers” tote bag I had brought back from Germany.
Even though I had missed Honk last year, it was easy to get back into the regular routine, including grabbing breakfast at the Dilboy and then eating it on our way to Seven Hills Park. Everything was just as I remembered it, with all of the bands gathered in the park behind the train station. It was an easy chance to say hi to as many people as possible in one fell swoop. I managed to help a friend from Barrage Band Orchestra climb into a tree with his sousaphone. The Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society did their usual song and dance about the definition of Honk, urging the instruments to wail as they were called. The rest of the day was bound to be exhausting, considering I had made no solid commitments to any of the bands. I planned to see pieces of as many sets as possible and managed to see almost every one of the dozens who were playing that day. My friends laughed when I said I wasn’t playing with anyone, and sure enough I fit in a couple of renegade sets with Barrage Band Orchestra, who wasn’t technically playing but had enough members to crash the festival. I also happened upon an impromptu set later in the day, where the bass drummer from ENSMB was trying to kill time until the next band. Several people joined us for a hurried rendition of Odessa, which I had already played when I sat in with Church Marching Band that day, and he did a fantastic version of a song from Animaniacs. I then ran into a friend from Minor Mishap who bought a drink at the adjacent BBQ place, so that wander down the street was definitely a win.
I also spent some time hanging out around the Detroit Party Marching Band’s awesome school bus. Their mascot was a golden chicken on a stick, which their bus driver dances with during their entire set. That is his only role at shows, which is incredibly brilliant. Years ago, I had given the chicken in its original form to one of my friends from Detroit, randomly insisting that she put it on a stick and make it their mascot. When I came on the bus, she announced “She’s the one who gave us the chicken!” and I was showered with praise. Later, when I knew they were playing elsewhere, I used their trailer as a viewing platform. I was pleased to have a Honk companion this year who was stronger than myself, and we climbed anything we could to watch bands, including a massive solar-powered garbage can in Davis Square and then the DPMB’s trailer for What Cheer? Brigade’s Set, which might have been my favourite one all week. They had made up an absurd dance on a whim when they played in Denmark or Iceland, I forget which, and had the entire crowd dancing along in the palm of their hands during that song out front of the Dilboy.
Eventually, it began to rain just as I again found my companion and we headed to see a band play in a covered parking garage, where I finally got some hula hooping in with their dancers. Eventually, I caught up with ENSMB and played half of their set along with members of Church Marching Band. So much for me claiming not to be playing with them. After this, we caught Detroit Party Marching Band playing in the entrance to the subway on their way to their set, and I had a stunning view through the windows inside the station. I remember hearing about the band as an idea years ago when I met its founders while busking in New Orleans and smiled to see how incredible they’ve become in such a short time. I managed to catch part of both sets by Lungs Face Feet, who were my other new favourite band and they renewed my faith in Pittsburgh as a potential place to move someday. One of them recognized me from the Eris parade band two years ago, even though we had never met, which made me feel pretty special.
As the bands finished up for the evening, we all found our way to the Dilboy. I smiled at the familiar sight of instruments strewn everywhere and the sounds of mediocre jam session at the hands of exhausted and possibly already drunk musicians. We all eventually piled into vans and headed for the afterparty, which was held again at a large hall on the other side of Somerville. There was certainly a slight conflict between our idea of fun and that of the venue. We all had delicious free barbecue and beer, lots of conversation, and eventually jamming. I wound up onstage with members of Church Marching Band, all of us constantly trying to derail the jam from Carnival Band and turn it towards Klezmer and Balkan. The trombone choir had been rehearsing downstairs, so for a while the jam was quite high-pitched without the low-end. Eventually, Veveritse struck up a small set in the stairwell and was eventually moved into the basement, where we all tried to follow along to their relatively complex songs. Finally, the management made it clear that the party was over by turning off the lights. No matter; my companion and I headed to a house nearby where my host and our friend were enjoying a very nerdy party. The night ended quite late after a long walk and I woke up on a porch next to a warm boy.
I posted the previous entry quite a while ago. Here’s a combination of what I wrote months ago and what I remember of the rest of Honk…
The morning began as they always do on the last day of Honk, with a hurried buffet breakfast at the Dilboy hall, negotiating the giant table of jam and puddles of brass band saliva. Fortunately, since we were staying around the corner, the commute to coffee was relatively painless. As happens every year I was running late, so by the time I reached the meet-up, the parade groups were all assembled. I had a few options to choose from, but played yet again with Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. I didn’t really know enough of their new material to play a show, but a parade is a whole different animal – the more the merrier. After a year away from Honk festivals, it was a fantastic feeling to be marching down the street again with a brass band, wedged between gigantic puppets and costumed activists. May Day in NYC had been the closest I had come in a while. It felt very much the same as other years, although this time I treasured a chance to play with other horn players more than ever.
We poured out into the same little park in Harvard Square where we always end. ENSMB had been at the rear of the parade, so the grass was full of instruments and tired musicians. I took up my usual post across the street and greeted old friends and spent a while hanging out and talking. I ran into a couple of adorable members of Speaker for the Dead, who further urged me to join their January tour. The afternoon then unfolded into a scavenger hunt of marching bands. I continued my attempts to see all of the bands, meanwhile meeting up with local friends and dragging them along. This year, Pink Puffers had the mainstage spot, which made it feel as though nothing had changed in the years since their previous visit to the US. Harvard Square Octoberfest is always odd in that it doesn’t feel terribly German and nobody is drinking in the streets. In some ways, the brass bands are one of the more logical aspects of the day.
Eventually, the music finished and we all headed to the dinner and evening show nearby. DPMB got stuck in a construction site while trying to take a shortcut, so we laughed our way through helping them get over the fence with their instruments. We wandered into a building which looked spot-on like the dining hall at Hogwarts. So, I thought to myself, this is Harvard. Of course, we were not to be dining in the grand hall, but in a basement area which was nonetheless architecturally charming. The band storage area consisted of two classrooms – one full of drums and sousaphones and the other full of everything else. It was a beautiful sight. I ate dinner with members of bands I barely knew, making new friends and learning about unfamiliar cities. Soon enough, it was time for the show to start. I had opted not to play with anyone that night, determined to simply enjoy the show. Each band was allotted exactly eight minutes to play, so no doubt I would have missed several bands while waiting in the wings or trying to navigate back upstairs.
I highly enjoyed the ease of not playing with any band, although it was a bit odd to see ENSMB up there without me. It was a musically diverse lineup and an awesome show. The trombone choir, a project open to all trombonists at the festival, was huge and included sousaphones and a bass drum. Some of my favourite moments came towards the end of the show, including a member of Pink Puffers walking across the tops of the seats while the other tried to climb the statues, the dudes in Environmental Encroachment stripping to their underpants as they played, and Rude Mechanical Orchestra ending the show with a chant of “Education should be free.” Harvard had no idea what to do with us. Meanwhile, I spent the end of the show being chastised for dancing in the aisles. Dang kids and their crazy swing dancing. A large part of the audience ignored the restriction on dancing, so I wouldn’t be shocked if we weren’t asked back, but it was a beautiful hall and a fantastic concert.
The night had ended with a weird tuba-related beauty contest (I forget what exactly) in the back alley, a lot of lingering around the venue trying to find an afterparty with my long-lost friend from Extra Action Marching Band, and then a long but fun walk back to Somerville to where I had been staying. We caught up with members of Carnival Band, breaking out into a wonderful little jam along the way. I somehow wound up carrying the helicon for part of the journey and had a lot of fun playing it. We eventually made a stop at the supermarket and somehow managed not to get kicked out of the store. It was a long walk and a late night, especially considering our flasks had run dry at the show. Our host was out of town, though, and I lucked into having a bedroom for the night.
DAY 5 – PRONK!
The next morning, I packed my stuff and headed to the Honk panels over at the college. There were two halves, the first of which broke into a few different discussion groups, then ended with a workshop led by Members of Young Fellaz Brass Band, who led a second line over to the park for lunch. In a classic move of cultural misunderstanding despite good intentions, the folks organizing the panels had provided a very hippy vegan lunch which included a bbq sandwich option. Needless to say, the brass players from New Orleans were not amused by the fake meat. I managed to catch a bit of one of the later panels before getting picked up by my trumpet friend from ENSMB. We went back to grab my bags, then headed across town to pick up another friend, but didn’t leave until I had a tour of her incredibly awesome new home. The drive to Providence was a lot of fun, although we inevitably arrived slightly late. On the way, we saw a van full of Minor Mishap members, but nobody in our car would honk the horn. WTF, Honk Fest?
The scene in the park was much as I’d remembered it – beautiful waterfront Providence, band playing inside a circle of calm revelry, musicians napping in the grass. I found my dancing partner again and we started up a group of pairs around one of the bands. Eventually, during a band who I had seen multiple times, my friend and I escaped to grab some food at the boat house. I don’t know why she trusted me to push her wheelchair, other than it is difficult to do it herself through the grass, but we still made it their safely somehow. At the boat house, we found the only real bathroom around, a ravaged cheese and cracker table, and most of Minor Mishap as well as their trademark moonshine. We made it back to the park just in time to assemble for the parade. The skies had begun to darken, which made the fire spinners at the top of the stairs look all the more foreboding as the brass filed past.
We then embarked on a somewhat eerie march through the streets of Providence. I had never quite seen skies like this. I was again playing with Emperor Norton’s, which was a lot of fun. Our numbers were smaller than the day before, so I even felt pretty useful. We ended the parade at another spot on the waterfront, same as previous years, at which point more performances commenced. I headed for the indoor toilet, running into a friend from Detroit Party Marching Band in the parking lot and having some bonding time about our old saxophones (which were a year apart but otherwise identical). Another sax player walked past and I drew him into our obnoxious shop talk. He said that his old band would have a fit about him and the other sax player because they would never shut up about their mouthpieces. It was awful but also one of the hilarious highlights of the day.
The night continued on in the same vein as the weekend in Boston, with bands playing overlapping sets in different areas of the street, mostly outside. Church Marching Band got half naked during their indoor set, as they usually do. In fact, I got teased quite a bit by my friends for hanging out with a bunch of shirtless twenty-two year old boys… not that anyone was really shocked by it. At one point, a brave new friend and I climbed to a high point under the bridge to watch Loyd Family Player. From there, we saw Lungs Face Feet arrive on a boat and play a stunning set, which we soon headed back down to the water to see better. Again, I enjoyed a night without gig responsibilities.
The last set was What Cheer? Brigade playing in a parking garage, which might just be the ideal way to see them. Somebody had taken the PRONK sign, which consisted of five separate letters on long poles, and ripped off the top of the O so that it said PRUNK. Inevitably, the R disappeared and the word PUNK made its way through the crowd, circling us at a run. It was like some sort of bizarro Bread and Puppet skit as the brash music bounced around the cement walls. The weekend had been full of incredibly vivid moments, but this one might have surpassed them all. I launched into the crowd, dancing into a frenzy with various friends.
After the chaos fizzled out, I managed to find my ride to the afterparty, into whose car I had already loaded my bags earlier that night. It was quite an effort for everyone to navigate both themselves and their unwieldy luggage towards the party across town. Apparently there was a different one happening at a building where some bands were staying, somewhat tied into a WC?B space, but I opted for the same afterparty as always. I have many fond memories of these warehouse parties, eventually falling asleep for a handful of hours on his floor. One year a friend and I lucked into the kitchen couch, at which point I had a lost a bra which didn’t resurface until the next year’s afterparty, when someone found it in a filing cabinet. We entered the building to find the lady trumpet player from Extraordinary Rendition Band singing in front of a full band. Soon enough, she launched into “Superstitious” and a half-dozen of us grabbed our horns and played spot-on backing lines. Every horn player in the US is required to know the horn line to “Superstitious.” The gents from Church Marching Band and I eventually switched to forcing Balkan tunes on the jam, at which point the look on the guitarist’s face was priceless.
The afterparty was pretty awesome, especially due to the spontaneous funk band. It was awesome to be partying yet again with the Pink Puffers as well. At one point, my dance partner and I got a very good lesson from one of the other musicians, who showed us this incredibly difficult dip that is mostly used in salsa. I also had an interesting talk with another stranger where I listed my general issues with jazz, complaining particularly about its scattered reaction to the popularity of rock and the general lack of women despite their inclusion when it began. The party continued on well after my companion and I had grown weary from dancing. We eventually curled up on the floor among several other people, woke up surrounded by more, and headed blearily towards the nearby bus station. I had walked over with only Church Marching Band, but we found all of Environmental Encroachment waiting for the bus as well. Fortunately for everyone else on the bus, it was barely dawn and we slept the whole way to New York.