Breaking stride with Portland’s March Fourth Marching Band
Chico Women’s Club592 E. Third St.
Chico, CA 95928
In the conclusion to Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote perhaps the most paraphrased passage in the American canon outside of the Bible: “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”
It’s doubtful old Hank imagined that stepping would be done on stilts, and were he to see this proverbial drummer emerging from the woods—an ambling, gyrating cacophony of humanity, fire, instruments, bike parts and cast-off band uniforms—he’d likely run screaming back to civilization.
Nonetheless, the 30-something-strong gang of Portland, Ore., musicians, misfits and merrymakers collectively known as the March Fourth Marching Band exemplify Thoreau’s message of embracing the out-of-the-ordinary.
“It’s kind of an over-the-top dance party with theatrical elements, an explosion of positive energy where we try to dissolve the wall between audience and performer,” explains M4 leader, co-founder and bassist John Averill.
The band formed on Fat Tuesday (March 4), 2003, and in many ways resembles a never-ending Mardi Gras celebration, with ample amounts of Vaudevillian flair and just plain weirdness thrown in. Though the Pacific Northwest is far flung from New Orleans, Averill acknowledges a distinct connection to the Big Easy.
“We have two members of the band from New Orleans,” he says. “Spiritually, we have a special link with that city and its culture, which is a deep love for music and celebrating life with wild abandon. We’ve played there three times and every time it feels more and more like home for us.”
Hometown gigs feature a full roster of as many as 35 people, but the band is understandably smaller on the road: “We generally only tour with a maximum of 24 people, including crew,” Averill says. “On this tour we’ll have anywhere from 18 to 22 performers.”
Anyone who’s been in a band, organized a pinochle game or carpooled knows it’s damn near impossible to get even a handful of people in the right place at the right time. M4 is apparently blessed in this regard.
“We’ve been practicing every Monday night since the beginning,” Averill says. “We begin with sectional practice, meaning the horns, drums, and dancers all separate. Then, the musicians all come together at around 9 p.m. and practice as a band until 11 p.m. Attendance is shockingly consistent, and depending on the season we either spend the time developing new material or running through a bunch of songs in one night.”
The band’s repertoire consists of more than three hours of original and other music drawing from influences as wide ranging as big-band jazz, Eastern European Gypsy brass, samba, rock and funk, and set lists are made up on the spot to facilitate M4’s in-the-now vibe.
“As far as material, we have a dozen composers in this project, and there are no hard and fast rules about deciding on what covers to play,” explains Averill of the dynamic. “As bandleader, I just try to guide the project as opposed to being some kind of ‘boss.’ As booking agent, I generally decide on what gigs to take, but it is always dependent on availability of players. There is a core group of managers, myself plus four others, who lead this project and work collectively on administrative stuff, but for all major decisions we employ a degree of democracy.
“If we had our own country it would probably resemble a beautiful eco-topia where everyone is encouraged to creatively express themselves without fear, and where there is no crime or punishment. Kind of a green version of New Orleans filled with real-life cartoon characters, flying monkeys and super heroes.”