Most Portlanders have encountered that instant change of mood, let’s call it an M4 moment, where you thought you were doing one thing—commuting over the Hawthorne Bridge, wandering a crowded street fair, standing outside the Schnitz—when suddenly, with the crash of drums, the ring of horns, and the holler of stilt walkers, everything changes and you’re wrapped up in a Sgt. Pepper’s Technicolor Carnival Marching Band hallucination.

Marchfourth Marching Band Performs At The 2013 Jam Cruise
Marchfourth Performs At The 2013 Jam Cruise

There was a time in the mid-’00s when the MarchFourth Marching Band was everywhere, pulling up in its signature fire truck, playing every festival and Alberta event, winning Willamette Week’s Best Local Band, ringing the hallowed atrium of City Hall like a cymbal for former Mayor Sam Adams’s swearing-in celebration, and always leaving just before the police arrived (at least that one time it put on an unpermitted parade with Tom Green for a segment on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno). 

But you’d be excused for realizing it’s been a while since you last heard their rallying cry, “Joy Now!” That’s because they’re now on the road 175 days a year, a modern coterie of merry pranksters touring music halls across the country. 

Marchfourth Marching Band
Image: Andy Batt

Celebrating its 10th birthday at the Crystal Ballroom this month, the band has come of age with modern Portland. With its home-welded drum harnesses, upcycled uniforms, globe-spanning music mash-up, and entrepreneurial drive to succeed at a seemingly outrageous project (a band that supports 24 people!), MarchFourth basically plays the anthem for Portland’s weird-leaning DIY makers with big dreams. And like the city itself and many of its arts organizations, over the past decade the ensemble has grown up—into a polished, professional, collaborative project that is just on the edge of full sustainability. 

Marchfourth Marching Band
Image: Andy Batt

“They’re ‘a little ol’ marching band’ just as Portland is a ‘little ol’ city in the Pacific Northwest’: neither is going to be hemmed in by what other people think,” says Adams, now the executive director of City Club. “Portland marches to the beat of its own drum, and MarchFourth makes sure that beat is always changing.”  

The band started when five friends—John Averill on bass, Dan Stauffer on percussion, Nathan Wallway on stilts, and dancers and twins Faith and Nayana Jennings—roped in two dozen other musicians to play a one-off Mardi Gras party on March 4, 2003 (thus the multivalent name). But when the US invaded Iraq two weeks later, they decided to march in the first antiwar protest, playing their six cover songs on repeat. The effect was musical alchemy, transmuting anger into a clapping, dancing crowd of followers. 

“Here was this band that was even more joyous and fantastic than Pink Martini,” recalls Pink Martini bandleader Thomas Lauderdale, who was among the crowd. “From the beginning it was this perfect Portland progressive project that was musical, activist, galvanizing, and inspiring, even in the bleakest situations.”

Marchfourth Marching Band
Image: Andy Batt

Pink Martini hired MarchFourth to open several concerts, which sparked corporate gigs and local events, which in turn bought MarchFourth time to hone its unique, percussion-driven mixed drink of New Orleans brass, Latin big band, funk, Balkan, Afrobeat, Middle Eastern, and whatever else members found inspiring. The ragtag rabble grew into 30-plus musicians, dancers, and stilt walkers. They were admittedly sloppy, but their sloppiness paled next to their spectacle and enthusiasm.  

Given the group’s size, few onlookers envisioned a life beyond beloved local house band status. But band members’ ambitions were ignited by a last-minute madcap trip to Germany during the World Cup in 2006. They went to perform at the Altonale Festival, where they beat out 50 groups from around the world for “Best in Show,” but they picked up Cup-related gigs along the way. “The whole world was in Germany,” says saxophonist Robin Jackson, who has since left the group to cofound Joy Now, a circus, music, and performance program taught by band members. “The magic was out of control. We marched down the red-light district; we invaded the subways and busked on the streets.”

Marchfourth Marching Band
Image: Andy Batt

So the band started to tour. First to one-offs, like New Belgium Brewing’s Tour de Fat festivals and an appearance with Pink Martini and Carol Channing at the Hollywood Bowl. Then in 2007, MarchFourth bought a bus off eBay for $10,000, fixed it up (naming it “Razzle Dazzle” after Channing’s trademark song), and went on a national tour: 22 cities in seven weeks with some 35 people on board. “This band is not going to be sustainable if we hang out in Portland,” says bandleader Averill, who continues to split management duties with the four other founders. “Without a bus, MarchFourth doesn’t work. We cook on the bus; we sleep on the bus. It’s kind of like a mobile home for 24 people.”

The bus led to a booking agent in 2010, which was the final catalyst. Distant gigs were no longer just fun field trips: MarchFourth was now a touring act. It put 250,000 miles on Razzle Dazzle before she died in Arizona, spurring them to raise $50,000 via Kickstarter for a newer model. 

MarchFourth Web Archives
Portland's merriest marching band shares some videos from the vault.

With the transformation came a shift in personnel. Part-timers with day jobs and families pulled back, making room for new, mostly full-time members willing to scrape by on a small day rate in order to be part of something magical, supplemented by side projects such as making merchandise for the band’s pop-up boutique. Against all odds (and presumably rational thought), MarchFourth Marching Band has become the primary occupation of two-dozen people. “One of the biggest assets is the fact that there’s no one central figure,” says Nayana Jennings, the founder in charge of general management. “People can come and go because it’s greater than the sum of its parts.”

Over the years, MarchFourth has streamlined, added electric guitar, moved into more rock-influenced original material, and released four records, shedding its early exuberant sloppiness for a tight, hard-driving show with polished dance routines that’s earning it invitations to ever more prestigious festivals, from the Telluride Jazz Fest to Jam Cruise. The goal now is for the band to be truly sustainable, providing a fully livable wage and health insurance. Managers believe it’s possible if they keep building audiences the old-fashioned way (while crossing their fingers for a late-night-show invitation or viral video), because they’ve learned that, just as they transformed that antiwar protest 10 years ago, they have the same effect everywhere they go.

 “We strike a chord in the consciousness of America wherever we travel,” says dance team coordinator Aaron Lyon. “People believe in what we’re doing: ‘There’s that traveling band of misfits who are doing it together, altering the way people live.’” —Aaron Scott     

Iris DeMentMar 22 at 8

A musical fixture in the folk scene during the ’90s, this Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter collaborated with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Merle Haggard, her distinctive vibrato able to confess as well as testify. After a 16-year absence of original material, she’s back with a critically lauded new album. —Gino Cerruti   

 LowApr 5 at 8

Releasing its 10th studio album, The Invisible Way, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, on its 20th anniversary, Low proves its career is like its music, slow burning but incredibly resilient. The trio, fronted by husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, is known for stripped-down shows so transcendent that they’ve kept audiences sitting cross-legged and spellbound on the floor. —AS  

Jeff Bridges and the AbidersApr 7 at 8

Bridges may have won an Academy Award for his role as an aging country singer in Crazy Heart, but he wasn’t content just to act. He released his second album of country tunes (with production by the renowned T-Bone Burnett) in 2011 and has been touring whenever he’s not on a movie set. The Dude definitely abides. GC 

Blind Pilot with the Oregon SymphonyApr 27 at 7:30

Like Pink Martini, the resident masters of crossing from music club to symphony stage, the indie-folk group Blind Pilot casts a musical spell so joyous that it wraps up listeners of all ages, making it impossible to leave a concert anything but beaming. —AS  

For ticket prices and showtimes, click on the event's title to visit the event's listing.