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A look back at Honk! Fest and three days of activist street bands

Posted by Your Town  October 15, 2010 10:57 AM

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Five years ago, organizers in Somerville created the first-ever Honk! fest—a three-day extravaganza of ragtag, dressed-up "activist street bands" that's spun off sister events in Seattle and Austin. This year at the mothership, the 23 acts drew crowds from Davis Square to Harvard and back. Judging from the experience of Brooklyn-based Balkan brass band Veveritse and leader JR Hankins, the performers have even more fun than the audience.

Friday, October 8. Dinnertime at Honk! headquarters—the Dilboy VFW hall in Davis—is a gathering of the tribes. Half the room, it seems, wears black and green. There's a stack of Honk! T-shirts for "female-identified" attendees. Organizer John Bell is greeted with a trombone fanfare and life-sized goose figurine. It's intense.

Drew Stauss of Atlanta's Seed & Feed Marching Abominable, 49, explains the rituals—after telling the story of his shirt, which involves a hippie circus, a box of Beanie Babies and a nasty kayak trip. The goose symbolizes "honking." Black and green are the colors of New York's Rude Mechanical Orchestra, the largest band this year. The Seed & Feed brought one-third of their 160ish members, including one 89-year-old.

JR has gone straight to present at a band leadership workshop in the church. When the facilitator suggests everyone play together, there's a minute to check in. Veveritse has squeezed in a non-festival gig that night in Cambridge; in the morning, they plan to relax at volunteer host Annie Silverman's house in Powderhouse Square until 12:30 or 1, then dive in.

Saturday, October 9. 11:55 a.m. The band is already out the door.

2 p.m. Davis Square: A member of the Extraordinary Rendition Band wears a pin that says I <3 REAL PEOPLE, and here they are, in bewildering glory. Neighbors stand on benches. A sousaphonist hustles. A living statue poses. A doctor-clown pans for donations. Two women start a circle dance. At the center is Veveritse, seven people small, playing intricate music with ornamentation and shifting time signatures. They're dressed like people from the old country, except JR has fake feather eyelashes.

On the sidelines, Minor Mishap members Saj Zappitello, 28, and Joe England, 54, discuss costuming. In yellow scarf and black jacket, England looks like a pirate; he's supposed to be "a parody of a fascist dictator." However, though "we're individually pretty much a bunch of Bolsheviks, the band isn't really political," England says, unlike the RMO, which is so radical it turned member Judy Shatsky into an activist.

3 p.m. JR is packing up his rotary-valve flugelhorn, talking Bulgarian music versus Croatian and greeting friends from Balkan Camp. Somerville's own Emperor Norton's Stationary Marching Band makes a grand steampunky entrance, stiltwalkers striding high. JR sings along, his eyelashes fluttering in the breeze—the song was written by a Brooklyn band.

On the way to the bar, JR greets an old bandmate who now plays in Minor Mishap. "I forget how interconnected a lot of things are and I can't tell if it's music or lifestyle or politics," he says. The music-focused Veveritse isn't the typical Honk act, but it grew out of the Honk community after JR went to Serbia. He also leads a Carnival Honk band in New Orleans, where he used to live.

Though Veveritse is new to the Somerville Honk!, it's JR's fourth trip. "It's such a complicated web of people—there's a certain magic to the way that you connect," he says. At Honk!, the community gets "visceral."

Around the square, everything is happening at once, with musicians as performers and cheering squad: Seed & Feed, with their sexagenarian dancing girls; Providence's What Cheer? Brigade, whose colors are black and a very dried-bloody red; and the famed Rude Mechanicals, whose energy vortex is so strong you can barely see inside the throng. By Veveritse's second set, the temperature has dropped. Everyone left dances at least a little to keep warm. A stilt-walker whirls.

Sunday, October 10, 11 a.m. The VFW is subdued. Comparatively; a man wears neon green bunny ears, ready for the noontime parade to Harvard Square. JR and bandmates Greg Squared and Erin Bell recap the previous night's raucous bands-and-volunteers-only party. "I gave away the horn I was borrowing for the first song and then I was just sitting on the table," Erin says.

Someone wants to start a Honk! in Pittsburgh, Greg says: "They'll call it Ponk!" JR gets up for coffee. A man gives them a flyer for the inaugural Maui Honk!, open to "anybody in any band who can make it out there," he says.

2:30 p.m. The Honk paraded to Harvard Square Oktoberfest, and Oktoberfest swallowed the bands: By the time Veveritse can be found, their set is done. They've dropped the Eastern European-accented outfits: percussionist Emily Geller wears two shades of pink lamé. Though the mob swirls by eating street food and tapping their feet to New York Haitian band DJA-Rara, the air seems to have leaked out of the tires for Veveritse. People have to work Monday; they can't stay for the closing concert at the Somerville Theater. They talk about going home.

Thursday, October 14. Or… not. "We aaaactually ended up staying later than we thought," JR says on the phone. There was dinner at the VFW, and they decided to perform at the concert after all. "And after that we got on the T," with members of Feed & Seed and Minor Mishap and "just played the whole time on the train." Arrival in New York: 4 a.m. A friend in Minor Mishap sat in the train, blissed out, and told JR, "Thanks so much, because we were so tired." Whether Balkan or just plain brassy, Honk music wakes you up.

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