7/16/14 – The Middle East Upstairs

I’ve passed through the doors of the Middle East Upstairs enough times to know the welcoming smell of falafel and stale PBR. But this was definitely the first time I’ve walked in to see a five foot Greek grandmother waltzing with a gender-bending steampunk, or an opening band whose seventh member is the trumpet player’s dog. It was most certainly the first time I’ve seen seventeen band members crammed onto the creaky, carpeted stage. But these seventeen were less of a marching band and more of a musical circus, with each sporting eye-catching steampunk gear and garb. If you were expecting fight songs and football cheers, you might be in for a very loud surprise.

The night’s bill was identical to one last summer at the Upstairs, where two local brass bands from Somerville joined a touring band from Austin, TX. The result was apparently a boisterous, brass-tastic time, so the three groups could hardly resist reuniting for a second tour. Saxes, clarinets, fifes and even the thunderous sousaphone were among the cast of brass and woodwinds loaded onstage. And yet despite similar instrumentation, each band utilized their arsenal of horns in different – sometimes unexpected – ways.

Texans Winovino opened up the evening as the sole touring band on the bill, so it was uplifting to see such unbridled energy all across the dance floor. After all the circle pits and stage dives I’ve seen at the Upstairs, Greek dance circles and waltzing couples were a refreshing change of pace. Surprisingly, this ended up being the rowdiest the crowd would get for the rest of the night.

Somerville Symphony Orkestar took a while to rev up the energy, but by their last few songs onlookers were cheering for more. The self-described “Eastern European Funk Punk” band was less of a traditional sounding brass band than their colleagues, with the discipline of a highly trained jazz combo and the creative improvisation of a jam. Head-bangers and strutting couples alike left satisfied with the explosive Slavic swing ensemble.

It almost felt as if it took Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band longer to set up all 17 members than it did to play their actual set. Among the personalities onstage, there were a few members who truly stole the spotlight. In a sea of pork pie and bowler hats, there was but one feathered marching band helmet tucked away in the back worn by the goateed guitarist. Audience members jockeyed for position throughout the set to take in the spectacle, as the curtain of brass players would often part to reveal soloists. This might be why there were noticeably fewer dancers, as most spent their time in awe of the performance. But occasionally even some instrumentalists stopped to scratch their heads, as slight miscommunications lead to solos colliding into one another. At one point, half the band started playing a different song than the other half, but made a swift recovery amidst laughter and supportive cheers. The ringleader of the circus, Rev. Handsome Chuck, kept the chaos under control and was clad in a top hat plastered with frayed patches complete with flowing braided pigtails.

From the two blue-haired women bowing at their light-up electric fiddles, to the army of dapper-looking brass players, to a single booming sousaphone craning its bell over the troupe, Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band unleashed a monstrous wall of sound. The Upstairs is not usually noted for its sound system, but despite a few moments of muddiness the overall mix was impressively balanced given the cramped stage.

During their performance, the group journeyed through genres such as funky disco, big band swing, circus music, and saucy cabaret. But the one constant was their signature blend of Eastern European jazz with an experimental, avant-garde twist. The songs were almost exclusively instrumental, unlike the two openers who used vocal hooks effectively to engage the crowd. Instead of full covers, the ensemble quoted well known melodies such as the infamous “Imperial March” from Star Wars, and Reel 2 Real‘s (or Madagascar’s depending on your generation) “I Like To Move It” sung by a sax player wearing a fez with a bouncing golden tassel. They even broke out a funky rendition of what I’m pretty sure was the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic theme. Either way, it was instantly evident that this band had an extensive repertoire and plenty of street performance experience.

So it was disappointing to see the gang evacuate the stage without an encore after playing only a little over 40 minutes. Although to be fair, ushering almost 20 people off stage only to come back minutes later would be pretty absurd. With a band as massive as this one, there are so many personalities and so many talented young musicians to behold. Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band is a musical spectacle you have to experience more than once.

Honk It Out: Emperor Norton's Stationary Marching Band
Pros
  • Rich variety in instrumentation and genre
  • Each member displayed suberb musicianship
  • The sheer size of the band is a spectacle to behold
Cons
  • Some miscommunication in the band was apparent but infrequent
  • Mostly instrumental set discouraged audience participation
  • Surprisingly short headlining set, with no encore
8.5Overall Score
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