Brass monsters Hungry March Band are the only group ever to play both Madison Square Garden and the Women’s March on Washington. And also on Essex Street – in the street itself, marching north across Houston to parts unknown late in the summer of 1999. That was typical of the band back then.
The Garden gig happened five years later, as part of a Ralph Nader benefit. By then, as one former member put it, they’d decided to “shake out the musicians from the Burning Man people.” And suddenly this ramshackle, rotating Lower East Side and Williamsburg crew, who could barely keep time, transformed themselves into a blazing, Balkan-inspired beast.
In the years since, there’s been some turnover among what’s always been a rotating cast of players. Their latest album, streaming at Bandcamp, is surprisingly title Running Through with the Sadness. Hungry March Band have a thing for edgy chromatics and minor keys, but they aren’t exactly known for depressing music. How melancholy is this record? It’s not. The songs are on the fast side, and the band will be playing some of those tunes at one of their annual rituals on July 15 at 3 PM at the corner of Lexington Ave. and 60th St. as part of this year’s Bastille Day festival.
The album also manages to be the most polished thing the band’s ever done, without being slick. The catchy opening track, Ghost Puppy, pulses along on a loopy sousaphone riff – that’s either Tom Abbs or Ben Fausch. There’s also some neat call-and-response and a weirdly oscillating trumpet solo played through a flange, something you’d hardly expect from this analog AF group.
Tenor saxophonist Tove Langhof’s edgy, spiraling, JD Allen-esque solo kicks off Mali Mali – a briskly shuffling, Afrobeat-tinged shout-out to the late Coumba Sidibe. Baritone saxophonist and producer Jason Candler adds good-natured, smoky riffs and bursts over a streamlined pulse.
At least half of the band’s seven-person percussion section join in the intro to Shimmy, a mambo-tinged New Orleans strut packed with the droll pregnant pauses the band love so much, along with a neat alto sax conversation. mighty swells and flanged drums.
Big, bright, cinematic brass juxtaposes with droll, barking sousaphone in Zombie Dog, a wave of terror rising through the band midway through. Whichawhicha is a wickedly anthemic ska tune with early Skatalites flair, a punchy, gruff Candler baritone solo and an even tastier one from one of the trumpeters (who include John Heyenga, Jeremy Mushlin, John Waters and Jennifer Harder).
Eclipso Calypso is another direct, catchy Caribbean joint – it’s the balmiest track on the album, with carefree solo for trombone (that’s either Sebastian Isler, Cecil Scheib or Kevin Virgilio), trumpet and saxes. The rest of that section of the band includes Emily Fairey and Phillippe Boyer on tenor, Okkon Tomohiko Yokoyama on alto and Sasha Sumner on soprano.
With its funky blend of New Orleans and Puerto Rican flavors. the album’s best track is the brisk, bustling, bluesy Off the Hook. The fiery title cut, a lickety-split merengue, is another monster – the tightness of those rat-a-tat lines will come as a shock to anybody who saw this band in the early days.
After that sprint, it only makes sense for the band to slow down with Swirling Spaceman, if only for the dubwise intro that morphs into a skanking ska groove. There’s also an expansive bonus track, Ataraxia, meaning “calm.” For this crew it might be calm, but for anybody else it would be an epic coda, a warmly anthemic, altered cha-cha with sweet, triangulated riffage, a soulful trombone solo and a clattering percussion break.
For the record, the percussionists on the album include Kris Anton, Anders Nelson, David Rogers-Berry, Samantha Tsistinas, Adam Loudermilk, Sara Valentine and Theresa Westerdahl. Let’s also not forget the costumed, twirling “HMB Pleasure Society:” Valentine, Despina Stamos, Sarah King, Libby Sentz and Jill Woodward, in charge of motivating the crowd in case the music hasn’t already taken care of that.