Sweat and Lowdown

Andrew Hultkrans on the Extra Action Marching Band


Left: The Extra Action Marching Band performing at Galapagos. (Photo: Annie Sundberg) Right: “La Contessa,” the Band's Spanish galleon, at the Burning Man Festival.

The Extra Action Marching Band is a thirty-five strong troupe of Bay Area drum-and-horn hellions who play an aggro blend of Balkan brass music, New Orleans second-line funk, and primeval Moroccan trance, preceded by a raunchy flag team that marches, bumps, and grinds in corsets, hot pants, and pasties. They have graced the prestigious Guca brass band festival in Serbia, sailed the playa at Burning Man in a self-built Spanish galleon, and rocked the Hollywood Bowl with fan and colleague David Byrne. They incite near-riots wherever they go, and may be some of the best public art available in our chastened century. So when the band came to Galapagos in Williamsburg to kick off the final run of their “Eastward Invasion” tour, I needed to be there.

After an opening set by the local Hungry March Band, which is more musical but less explosive, Extra Action snake into the room. The band members bring in da funk in more ways than one. After three weeks living and touring in an already pungent Green Tortoise bus, Extra Action smells, um, powerful. Their heady stench acts as a kind of aromatherapy time-machine, transporting the audience to an earlier, bawdier era—Elizabethan times, say—when public drunkenness was common, instruments were acoustic, and showers didn’t exist. In the narrow, sold-out space, there is simply no escape from the all-sensory assault of these lascivious minstrels. David Byrne cowers at the back of the room, unadvisedly wearing all white. I take a musty pom-pom to the face, the flag team’s sweat permeates my clothing, and, straining to turn my head, I notice my female cousin receiving an unsolicited colonoscopic close-up from a thong-wearing male dancer named Roky.

After a riotous, deafening set that includes a version of “Back Dat Azz Up,” a horn player opens the door to the adjoining empty room that used to be the venue’s performance space. Both marching bands start playing and pour into the room, followed by the entire audience. Chaos ensues. Byrne, smiling, head-nods to the merged bands’ spirited version of “Kalashnikov,” a popular Balkan stomper. The lights are turned on and off, whether by the staff or the band I’m not sure. I look back through the open door to the now empty bar area, where the bouncer is reading the riot act to trombonist Ben Furstenberg. The music is so loud that I can’t hear what they’re saying, but I imagine Furstenberg explaining artistic license and Althusserian subjectivity as the enraged mook screams, “Shut your hole and get them the fuck OUTTA THERE!” Apparently sensing an impasse and abandoning further discourse, the bouncer re-enters the fray, trying in vain to get individual musicians to stop playing, a Sisyphean task that, in my view, only adds to the unhinged glee of the moment.

Left and right: The Extra Action Marching Band performing at Galapagos. (Photos: Annie Sundberg)

Meanwhile, the manager ascends to the soundboard deck and turns on a mic, pleading with the throng to vacate the room. Someone good-naturedly yells “Fuck off!” Clearly, the manager anticipated this gambit. Without missing a beat, he shouts, “That’s right, you can fuck me in the ass, but you still have to leave!” The line is such a bold departure from standard managerial rhetoric that the crowd actually honors his request, politely filing back into the bar/stage room to continue the revelry.

This is not to say there isn’t more trouble afoot. Returning from a cigarette break outside, I’m nearly bowled over by the now apoplectic bouncer forcibly ejecting Extra Action drummer Mutt Mule, just caught in flagrante delicto with two ardent fans in the bathroom. A petite woman in a green dress chases the fracas with a digital videocam. For a tour documentary, I wonder? For a lawsuit? Who cares? Least of all Mutt, who’s back inside twenty minutes later to rejoin his bandmates.

The Defense Department’s research into the “sleepless soldier” notwithstanding, the human body can only deliver total mayhem for so long. So it is with Extra Action, who can’t possibly top the continuous climax of the past two hours with a grand finale. Instead, they wind down like battery-powered cyborgs. Eventually, the flag team collects their sweat-soaked pom-poms from the rafters; dancers slither their way from table-tops to the floor, where, exhausted, they nibble at random ankles; audience heads are removed from flag-team crotches. The band slows to a mournful dirge and peters out, leaving Galapagos in a state akin to the aftermath of a Dionysian neutron bomb—nothing damaged, but with obvious traces of a massive blast of energy radiating everywhere.