Music » Music Stories

B-Sides marches to the beat of a 30-piece punk-rock marching band and explores the history of name-shifting

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Friends, we got trouble. Right here at the Bluebird. That's trouble with a capital T! And that rhymes with P! And that stands for "punk"! The Chicago-based "astounding circus punk marching band" Mucca Pazza (Italian for "mad cow") may not quite have 76 trombones, but they have enough other instruments to make a serious racket — including woodwinds, trumpets, accordions, strings, drums, cymbals and electric guitar played by St. Louisan Jeff Thomas, onetime guitar-slinger in local surf-noise delinquents the Honkeys. Ahead of their first St. Louis show this Saturday night, Thomas and trombonist/"den mother" Elanor Leskiw talked about the triumphs and travails of making a pounding, honking racket with 30 of your closest friends.

B-Sides: Before we start, how do you pronounce the name correctly? I don't want to keep getting getting it wrong.

Elanor Leskiw: It's "mooka pahtza".

So how do you make guitar work in a marching band?

Jeff Thomas: When I moved to Chicago to study composition at Columbia College, one of the people I met was [Mucca Pazza founding member and musical director] Mark Messing. He mentioned this marching band idea, and I said, "I'm going to figure out a way to do it." In his studio, Mark had a bunch of hockey helmets and horn speakers. So I attached a speaker to a helmet and daisy-chained that to a battery-powered amp. In outdoor spaces, you can kinda hear the guitar. Indoors, it gets drowned out by all those trombones.

Is it a fair characterization to say that the full Mucca Pazza experience comes across better live than on recordings?

EL: Absolutely. We're definitely a musical entity first and foremost. But the visual and theatrical aspect is an entirely different element that you'd never get on a recording. Nothing we do is choreographed, but we've done a lot of movement workshops with a choreographer, to learn how to move in small spaces and be safe. We've worked extensively on how to be aware, on peripheral vision, and on how to improvise fun movements while playing instruments.

Speaking of coordination, a lot of rock bands have trouble getting four individuals in the same room at the same time. How do you handle that with 30 members?

EL: What makes it work is that everybody's so into it. We all do this because of love of the music. There's not a lot of money individually, because it's such a large group, so nobody's doing it for money or prestige. If all these different people didn't love it, it wouldn't happen.

JT: This is one of the strangest and most beautiful bands I've ever been in. Making harmony with 30 people is quite a feat, but it happens naturally with this band.

What do you want people to feel at a Mucca Pazza show?

EL: Joy. When my mother saw us for the first time, she said to me after seeing that show, "I've never been to a performance where everybody around me had smiles on their faces." And people dance. Chicago is not a big dancing town, so I loved that.— Jason Toon

8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 1. The Bluebird, 2706 Olive Street. $10 over 21, $13 under 21.

Mystery Men

What's in name? The St. Louis-based blues label Broke & Hungry Records will find out in April when it releases The World Must Never Know, the debut recording of a septuagenarian Delta blues singer and guitarist known only as "The Mississippi Marvel."

The pseudonymous Marvel refuses to use his real name out of fear of rejection by his local church community, many of whom still regard blues music as inherently sinful. But while an artist who wishes to remain anonymous certainly presents unusual marketing challenges in a personality-driven business, the Mississippi Marvel is just the latest in a long line of bluesmen who have concocted secret identities for themselves.

Such alter egos were often created by musicians seeking to avoid contractual complications while simultaneously recording for competing labels. That's how guitarist and singer Buddy Guy came to be billed as "Friendly Chap" on harp player and singer Junior Wells' 1964 debut Hoodoo Man Blues, and why the late John Lee Hooker made records under a host of names, including "John Lee Cooker," "John Lee Booker," "Texas Slim," "Birmingham Sam" and "Johnny Williams."

Jazz musicians have worked the same hustle for decades — from the time bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker famously appeared as "Charlie Chan" on several recordings in the '40s, up until the present day, when a trumpet player named "E. Dankworth" who sounds remarkably like Wynton Marsalis shows up on CDs by former Marsalis pianists Eric Reed and Marcus Roberts.

Nor is "The Mississippi Marvel" the first singer to cite religious reasons for using a pseudonym to record secular music. Soul crooner Sam Cooke already had a thriving career singing gospel with the Soul Stirrers when he put out his first pop song, "Lovable" under the name "Dale Cook." Record executives reportedly also forced blues guitarist Charlie Patton to record sacred songs under the name "Elder Hadley."

Should the Mississippi Marvel continue to be concerned about either earthly condemnation or eternal damnation, he might take solace from the career of a performer once known as "Barrelhouse Tommy" and "Georgia Tom," who in the '20s recorded a number of bawdy blues records both as a solo artist and in a duo with Hudson "Tampa Red" Whitaker. Today, "Georgia Tom" is better known as Thomas A. Dorsey, the acknowledged father of modern gospel music and composer of the popular hymn "Precious Lord," made famous by Mahalia Jackson. — Dean C. Minderman

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