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Review: It's easy to tell where Asphalt Orchestra is heading

The 3-year-old outfit reimagines the marching band. Its performance at Valley Performing Arts Center is appealing but predictable.

September 15, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Nick Jenkins plays bass drums with the Asphalt Orchestra at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge on Thursday.
Nick Jenkins plays bass drums with the Asphalt Orchestra at the Valley Performing… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

If the Tournament of Roses is anything to go by, marching bands haven't changed all that much since, well, forever. Certainly not from the days when I was a clumsy clarinetist schlepping through the Junior Rose Parade, that is until the bandmaster had had enough and told me to carry the tuba, the instrument having gotten too heavy for the little guy saddled beneath it.

I noticed Thursday night that the Asphalt Orchestra, a 3-year-old New York hipster remake of a marching band finally making it to California to open the Valley Performing Arts Center's season, doesn't have a clarinet. And the members are pretty casual about marching in step. And they don't wear suffocating uniforms — nothing white or frilly! And they play new music, not Sousa-fied arrangements of "Star Wars." Helloooo?

Of course, these players are good, even if a bit on the bland side. Plus, they still move — quite a lot, in fact.

PHOTOS: Asphalt Orchestra

The Asphalt Orchestra is a project of the new music outfit Bang on a Can, a brand name. The ensemble calls itself a neo-marching band. In their "guerrilla" mode, Asphalters march — sort of — outdoors. In their "renegade" mode, they put on an indoor show, dubbed "Unpack the Elephant," which is what they did in Northridge. Sooner or later there had to be something like this, what with the ongoing parade of hipsters taking up the accordion, the ukulele, burlesque.

Truth be told, the Asphalt Orchestra, with a mere 12 members, seems more a scruffy band in the rock 'n' roll sense than some highly disciplined musical panzer division in full regalia swinging onto a stadium field to fulfill a halftime ritual. The players don't announce their program nor list their members, which seems maybe slightly too hip. But most of the music comes from either its own players or rockers such as Frank Zappa, David Byrne or Björk.

And if more truth be told, "Unpack the Elephant" isn't all that radical but rather seems more intent on mainstreaming modern music. The show, which works overtime to amuse, began with the players hidden in the audience — not difficult because the house was not full — scat singing. They then marched on stage and did a likably jazzy but decidedly unedgy version of Zappa's "Zomby Woof."


The guys looked as if they were wearing their street clothes. The gals favored cutoff shorts and looked more put together. The orchestra has a wardrobe stylist, Elizabeth Hope Clancy. The show is directed by Mark DeChiazza and Andrew Robinson.

The band members' backgrounds are in classical, new music, jazz and pop. Their instruments include piccolo, three saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor), two trumpets, trombone, sousaphone and three percussionists (all with original setups). The arrangements feature ever-changing configurations of players, and much of the movement is based around groupings.

They are a lively bunch that's into ceaseless coming and going on and off stage with much traipsing through the aisles. Everybody looks happy all the time. Indeed, for all that activity, nothing much changes. A kind of sameness pervades the Asphalt Orchestra's music, arrangements, movement, lighting (designed by Jesse Belsky). What was cute for five minutes was still cute but predictable after 10 minutes. And then there were 50 more cute and predictable minutes to go.

PHOTOS: Asphalt Orchestra

The gimmicks weren't original. Tin cans dropped from the ceiling and became instruments for a while. Sheets of music paper dropped from the ceiling and their rustling became music for a while until they were cleared by leaf blowers (aren't those illegal?). Funny noises were meant to be funny. All was upbeat (hardly uncommon for a marching band). But little seemed new.

Still, the players were, to man and a women, appealing. The percussionist Yuri Yamashita proved a standout. And where the Asphalt Orchestra made its biggest impression was when it headed for actual asphalt.

The show ended with the band announcing that a reception in the lobby would follow, where CDs and T-shirts would be on sale and the band members would meet and greet. They marched out, with the audience following, and played briefly in the lobby — sounding great when loud, close-up, immersive.

Then they vanished into the hot Valley night, leaving head-scratching discussions as to where, or what, exactly is the lobby. After an hour of obvious music-making, a little mystery was refreshing.

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