The five members of The Brass Band--a brass quintet that makes the zany Canadian Brass seem like unsalted porridge--have heard it asked so many times now, it has become a litany: "Just how good can a brass band be, anyway?"
"Obviously, journalists and impresarios never expected too much from the likes of us," says Fritz van der Vol, the manic tubist of the seriocomic group, performing at the Westwood Playhouse through Jan. 4. "All that blowing, you know. . . ."
But The Brass Band--an antic blend of in-your-face street theater, sublime musical warblings and a few other spices--has upended the question by becoming something other than any old brass band.
As a group, the musicians became, ultimately, themselves. Even if they do prefer to be called by their stage names.
"That's really what we are up there--just somewhat off versions of ourselves," asserts The Captain (real name: Bob Jennings), trombonist and the five's informal leader. "Playing roles would become impossible after a while. The only way we can really keep fresh is to keep reinventing ourselves."
Such artful reflections are not part of The Brass Band's stage act, though. Dressed in what could charitably be described as band uniforms, the group enters, blowing--oftentimes tooting on lengths of garden hose with mouthpieces attached--and the level of reason drops precipitously thereafter. It's as if the Marx Brothers, stoned to the gills on laughing gas, decided they'd have a stab at playing a transcription of a Bach toccata. While dancing.
"We began as musicians, five guys fooling around in between gigs (in the San Francisco area) by thinking up ways to lampoon what we were doing," recalls Van der Vol (Johannes Mager). "And then suddenly. . . "
". . . We were subjugated by aliens who assumed our names and spoiled our children," concludes the rubber-limbed baritone hornist known as Buford (George Wallace) in a serene deadpan.
Which brings us to the problem most acutely felt by this 10-year-old ensemble: People keep asking, "Just who are these guys, anyway?" The lack of an easy label for what The Brass Band really does on stage simultaneously amuses and galls the players.
"The image problem is a real stickler," notes the Captain. "The music is really just a glue, a foundation, for the rest of what we do. And the shticks --I guess you'd call them that--are adapted to what is going to work that particular night, with that particular audience. Make no mistake: We'd much rather be the only group to do what we do, and if that means somebody who's seen us has trouble describing us . . . well, that's the way it goes."
Adds Van der Vol: "I think we should be thought of as a heavy-metal brass band. We play more or less 'legit' music--a lot of classics, some dance ditties, things like that--but the level of energy we expend, and the kind of response we get, is more like a Kiss show. Even in Japan, mumbling our bad Japanese, the audiences became violent."
"Not violent," counters Jimby (James Aron), the trumpeter with the aviator's helmet, "but extremely demanding. " Loois Tooloose (Bob Leach), his fellow trumpeter, nods in agreement.
Hapless classical music reviewers, sent to what might appear to be an innocent brass recital, often have been unable to delineate the unit's strengths. The published reviews have either excoriated the unit's "buffoonery" or have gone with the flow and (at least tried) to appreciate the band on its own terms.
But the audiences were rather less demanding--not to say positively nonplussed--before 1980, when a particularly courageous ("or completely bonkers," amends Van der Vol) Australian producer named John Pinder booked the group to a five-month tour for the country, where they were completely unknown. Box-office records were broken--as was The Brass Band's future as an act. Engagements followed in London, Boston, several cities in Canada and even back in San Francisco.
"A uniquely droll show-biz story," says the Captain dryly. "Travel 8,000 miles away, endure insults, industrial-strength beer and unwanted underwear--all in the name of art--only to return to your hometown and find that there's still no one who will accept your check."
Yet in spite of its bloodless coup in Australia, The Brass Band has still to conquer America. Much like their pop music or operatic cousins, these guys had to establish themselves abroad before making it here. But a 19-show stint at the Westwood should do much to make their, er, special blend of music and chaos more recognizable--if not definable.
"We're really looking to develop a miniseries," drawls Jimby in his best Hollywoodese. "We expect to do a bunch of breakfasts while we're here."
"Either that, or spoil a bunch of breakfasts," offers the Captain.