THE BLOG
08/31/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mad Cow by Moonlight: Mucca Pazza Enchants Evanston

Ah, summer in Chicago! You can scarcely go out for a quart of milk and a Redeye without being serenaded by live music from street fairs, ethnic fests, block parties, and concerts-in-the-parks. If you time it right, a leisurely stroll around your 'hood can be a crash course in western tonalism, from Monteverdi down through Moby.

And of course, wherever you go out of doors, your quadrupedal pal can follow. Which is a great boon to those of us who are both music lovers and dog lovers: we can indulge the former without abandoning the latter.

So a few nights ago I packed my eighty-pound collie, Harley, into the backseat of the car and drove to the lagoon at Evanston's Dawes Park, where we joined a respectably but not oppressively large crowd of revelers (including a sizable canine contingent) for an hour of Mucca Pazza.

For those of you who haven't seen it, the lagoon is man-made, a stadium-size oval with two circular platforms projecting into the water from either end. The southern platform is a thickly landscaped arcadia; but the northern is left empty to form a open stage, with stone terraces providing seating around its perimeter, much like the arenas of ancient Athens. It's a happy choice of venue for Mucca Pazza, because this band is as much about theater as it is about music.

Formed by bandleader and composer Mark Messing, Mucca Pazza (Italian for "mad cow") bills itself as a marching band that thinks it's a rock band. Accent on the "bills itself." This is where the levels of postmodernism begin to make your head hurt. Consider: If you broadcast that you're something that thinks it's something else, obviously you don't really think that. It's an elaborate pose; elaborate because the admission of the pose is itself a pose. Okay, I'll stop now. (This is the kind of stream of consciousness that results from too much time with only a dog for company.)

I think the truth is somewhere more along the lines of, Mucca Pazza is post-ironic deconstruction of the whole concept of a marching band. First of all, they don't march. They move around a lot, sure--darting off in different directions and weaving themselves into the crowd so that the sound comes from within the audience, behind the audience--and in fact they're so rootless an ensemble that I gave up trying to count them. It was like trying to tally up baby chicks. There might've been 18 altogether, or as many as 23. They were mainly horn players, of course (a full range of those), and drummers, but there was also an accordionist, a guitarist, even a violinist. Not to mention three cheerleaders whose uniforms and pom-poms didn't match. In fact, no one's uniform matched anyone else's; I got the impression these were leftovers from student band days.

But none of this milling around could pass muster as marching; it was too sinuous, too serpentine, too driven by animal impulses that would horrify a proper Sousa crew. See, the role of the marching band used to be one of reassurance: crowds would watch them sail by in lockstep, and the exactitude and rigor of their uniformity offered a vision of supremely confident organization--a reflection of the indomitable competence in which the onlookers, as a society, took such pride. That was fine for the Victorians, or Eisenhower's America; but we don't much believe in that kind of world anymore--we've seen how easily it cracks to pieces.

These days we're more interested in fluidity, individuality ... surprise. And that's what Mucca Pazza offers: an entire program of tunes--some original, others plucked from far and wide across the canon--that express playfulness and joy, that embrace the unexpected. Their influences run riot from middle-eastern rhythms to alt-rock headbanging. (The Chicago Reader calls them a "gypsy punk-rock marching band," which is as on the money as anything else I've heard.)

The paradox, of course, is that this seeming chaos is achieved only through backbreaking discipline; there's improvisation here, sure, but at times the dizzying meticulousness of these musicians can't help bursting through, as in a dizzyingly long fermata just before the concluding measure of Shostakovitch's Trio in E-flat, during which each player remained poised for the next note, which, tantalizingly, just kept ... on ... not ... coming. Soon the audience was roaring and clapping and happily hooting (recalling Oscar Wilde: "The suspense is terrible; I hope it will last")--till after more than two minutes (I was timing it with my iPhone stopwatch) they suddenly they plunged back in with absolutely military precision, and ended the piece.

During a few of the tunes, various members of the band (including guest conductor Jeffrey Thomas, facetiously introduced as a student) spilled off the stage and into the lagoon itself (which, as it turns out, is only ankle-deep). By the end of the set, nearly fifty audience members were doing the same, splashing around blissfully as the sun wobbled low in the sky. People seem to have come prepared to partner the band in whatever innocent anarchy they undertook; early in the set a young man near me spent twenty minutes dutifully working a hula-hoop. (I say young man; but not, I think, young enough. Twenty minutes of hula-hoop is a very long time. I had to get up and move Harley, who likes kids well enough, but does not take to the average manchild.)

My friends Henry and Julie, who live in the area, joined me partway through the set and swiftly became fans. They bought a t-shirt and snagged a handful of buttons. "What do they make off this stuff?" Henry asked about the swag, possibly because I'm in a band myself and might reasonably be expected to know. I of course have no idea. Henry ventured that the shaggy conduct of the ensemble was either the result of, or inspired by the effects of, dope; but I think that was just wishful thinking on his part. He'd probably say the same thing about a joint session of Congress. (Though a little ganja might actually help matters there.)

After the band dispersed we walked into town to have a drink courtesy of a nearby restaurant's outdoor seating. Harley took a dump on the way, which I picked up in a plastic bag and carried with me. "You're such a good citizen," Henry said with something less than complete approval. When a block passed with no sign of a trashcan, he tried to persuade me to leave it on top of a mailbox. I held out for a receptacle. As we drank we derided the widespread insistence of major corporations on maintaining a Twitter presence even when there's nothing to Tweet about. We were aware that we sounded terribly, terribly old. Our waiter was kind enough to bring Harley a tin tray of water, but when we left he told us not to bring him back because it was against health regulations. Julie said, "Evanston isn't Paris," which at that point in the evening struck me as startlingly profound.

Mucca Pazza's website is mucca-pazza.org. You can also check them out on YouTube and Facebook.