Marching Madness

Club Crawl™ headliner Mucca Pazza started out as goofy communal-band fun

Last year, 30-piece "circus punk marching band" Mucca Pazza considered making their way from Chicago to Austin for the South by Southwest music festival.

It can be an arduous journey--hundreds of acts are all trying to get shows on the same days at the same venues in Oklahoma City, Fayetteville, Dallas, Houston and other pit stops that can make the pilgrimage profitable, or at least help pay the way.

If the costs are daunting to a typical four-piece, it's no wonder Mucca Pazza found them insurmountable.

"The maximum time people felt they could take off of work was four or five days," says bandleader Mark Messing. "We needed to fly. Plane tickets were gonna run about $5,000." Factor in renting a truck to transport equipment down South, plus two vans to cart the band around once they were in Austin, and in the end, they couldn't figure out how to do it for less than $10,000.

However, Tucsonans should thank their lucky stars that Mucca Pazza has figured out the logistics enough to embark on a Southwestern tour--including a stop at Fall Club Crawl#trade;. They'll headline the Rialto Theatre, marching down Congress Street before taking the stage at midnight.

Mucca Pazza has enjoyed the kind of success in recent years that plenty of bands would kill for: playing Lollapalooza, appearing on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and landing representation at Satellite Booking, the agency that has handled the Silver Jews, Bobby Conn, Pit Er Pat and Bert Jansch.

The group has origins in the All-American Anti-War Marching Band, an ensemble of musicians and activists Messing helped assemble in Chicago in early 2003, just as the U.S. was readying for war. "We had about 80 people," Messing says. "Maybe a dozen of them were musicians; the rest were activists."

But Messing, who's been involved in various performance groups since moving to Chicago in 1979 and works full-time as a composer for films and theater companies, thought the group could be transformed into something a little more long-term.

"I was scheming about a band with odd combinations of instruments that could march around town as its own music-driven spectacle," he says. The following winter, he started inviting people to play at Maestro-Matic, his recording studio and business office

In the fall of 2004, Messing approached Tim Tuten, the owner of Hideout, a renowned Chicago music venue. Tuten had also been active in the anti-war movement, and Messing wanted to see if the club would be willing to host regular performances by the group, which had taken the name Mucca Pazza. Tuten gave them one Monday a month.

"I felt like the taverns that gave free stuff to the revolutionaries at Valley Forge," Tuten says. "In Nicaragua during the Sandinista era, places like the Hideout were called 'patriotic businesses.' I felt like it was the least we could do to help."

The early shows, Messing says, were "like an open rehearsal. Pieces were too long. But there was something that people enjoyed, I guess. They were amused. If they weren't into it, they'd just say, 'Oh, these guys are jamming.'"

The group was relatively small back then, with six or seven regular members, most of whom had played together previously. Percussionist Rick Kubes, for example, had known Messing through the theater scene since the early '90s. "We said in the beginning people could just bring their friends," says trombonist Elanor Leskiw, "and if they liked it, they stayed."

The band continued expanding. Cheerleaders were thrown into the mix. And some recruits were drafted in fairly random ways. Accordionist Shaye Cohn, Messing says, "was just playing on the street. ... I put a bunch of money in her hat and said, 'Please call us.'"

During a Mucca Pazza show, soloists step on each other's toes, and horn players give wallflowers in the audience an earful of brass while the cheerleaders walk a thin line between overzealous and confrontational. Everyone's done up like it's halftime at a college football game. And that's on an average night.

"The first year, we realized we just had to learn how to play together as a large group," Messing says. By the summer of 2005, they'd started branching out from the Hideout.

"The nicest, weirdest place we played (in 2006) was in canoes," says Messing, referring to a benefit for Friends of the Chicago River held in the summer of 2006. "We got in 14 canoes ... and paddled inland. We actually rode and rehearsed some formations, moving from a column to a semicircle. When a section of the band was featured, they either stood up or were paddled into the middle of the semicircle. We reformed the column during the final song and faded into the sunset."

Word of the band reached the producers of Late Night With Conan O'Brien, who were digging around for local talent to appear during a week of tapings at the Chicago Theatre in May 2006. Two days before the taping of the final show, they were booked to perform during the closing credits. "When he came out and introduced us," Kubes says, "he worded it as a thank-you to Chicago, so everyone just screamed. It sure sounded like it was for us! We knew the reality, but it was still our rock-star moment."

The national TV appearance naturally increased demand. Late in 2006, the organizers of Lollapalooza offered the band a slot. The festival brought them into a more "traditional relationship with the audience," says Messing, "where we're on a stage between two sets of speakers; our sound's coming from one direction, and people are watching."

Kubes, at least, wasn't entirely comfortable with it. "That was rough," he says. "Jumping over cords, getting goosed by drum pads, the heat and humidity--people are evaporating in those outfits, and you have no space to do shit. But from the minute we walked offstage, there was something different. There's no question; phones have been ringing off the hook since."

In November 1006, Mucca Pazza released an EP, A Little Marching Band, which they'd been recording in fits and starts for over a year at Maestro-Matic. It was a challenge for engineer Jacob Ross, who came in to help with the sessions. "Space becomes an issue when a band gets as big as Mucca Pazza," Ross says. "Not just physical space--the sonic space of the mix is just as crowded."

This year, Mucca Pazza released a full, 19-track album, Plays Well Together. Both albums are being distributed through the Web site CD Baby.

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