Rude Mechanical Orchestra

[25 July 2007]

By Kirby Fields

I realized that Rude Mechanical Orchestra’s record release party would be the hippest show I’d seen in awhile when I heard it was taking place on the second floor of an architecture firm in Williamsburg—a part of Brooklyn where wrist tattoos far outnumber wrist watches. When I arrive, I am immediately met by a gaggle of kids loitering outside. They clearly prefer the smoggy Friday night air to that of an un-air-conditioned loft. I won’t get a chance to use it, but yes, there is a valet parking service for bikes.

Band members greet me at the door, and twenty dollars gets me in with a copy of the new CD in hand (it is, after all, a CD-release party).  In the interest of full disclosure, I should let you know that a friend of mine plays drums for Rude Mechanical Orchestra—a fact which troubled my editor until I explained that he’s just one of approximately five percussionists in a band of thirty. Filling out the band’s massive ranks, Rude Mechanicals’ roster also includes saxophone, trombone, flute, tuba, banjo, and—following through on the promise of their name—violin.

As they begin to play, one woman periodically shouts through a megaphone while other members wave flags. Eight (or so) do nothing but dance—sometimes choreographed and sometimes to the beat of their own drummer(s). There’s no use resisting when one of the dancers extends a hand and invites you to join them on the dance floor. He or she may be the one outfitted in trademark green and black, but when you decided to come to this show, you decided that you were a Rude Mechanical, too.

The music itself sounds like the front of the Band and Bob Dylan’s infamous The Basement Tapes collaboration looks (and in looking at the cover of The Basement Tapes again right now, I can’t help but wonder, Rude Mechanicals, where’s the accordion?). That said, there’s really no way to circumvent the shorthand description of the group: they’re a marching band. I hesitated to include that line because now you’re thinking to yourself, “Got it,” and reading with a certain image in your head. That’s simply unfair, because this lazy description—which I include only out of a feeling of obligation—is unnecessarily reductive.

Eliminate from a traditional marching band the regiment of rows, the counterintuitive chin straps, the uniforms that are more at home at Waterloo than on a football field, and the sheet music (ok, a couple of Rude Mechanicals were reading along, but still), and suddenly the music, suddenly that sound, is more celebratory than it would be at halftime. And that’s a good thing because let’s face it, the only people really enjoying themselves when a normal marching band plays are those in the marching band itself (and maybe the parents who care not a whit about the score of the game). But when the Rude Mechanicals play, I assure you, everyone gets into it. To be sure, there are vestiges of tradition in the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, but rather than hold steadfast, they play with and subvert the rules.

True, tonight’s concert is packed with ramshackle sounds, but sloppy it is not. In fact, the instrumentation is relatively tight, which says something when one considers the size of the group. They’re most impressive when playing in unison: at many points, drum beats merge as horns blare, and the band’s members sound off with collective “oohs” (the songs’ only lyrics). At other points, they take a knee, en masse, for a featured flute, saxophone, or tuba solo. 

With the exception of one dancer’s tattered t-shirt bearing a picture of W branded with the words “Not My President”, the band’s usual political bent is almost wholly side-stepped tonight. It’s surprising since they’ve performed at various rallies and protests around the city. Of course, it’s also a reminder that this band can’t be pinned down. While they’re surrounded by friends tonight, my favorite image of the band remains a picture on their website: it seems to have been taken on the beach at Coney Island, and the band is stretched across the sand, flags aloft, instruments, presumably, making a racket. I like that there’s only the pier and the water, that there’s no audience.  After all, when you strip away the labels (marching band), the politics (liberal), and the pretension that can come with a cred-bearing concert held in a Williamsburg loft, all that’s left is a pure and joyful noise.

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