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Mixing old and new, Providence’s What Cheer? Brigade takes a stand against pre-fabricated culture
By IAN DONNIS  |  October 9, 2008

ON THE MARCH: The mobility of What Cheer? and similar street bands makes for a moving party,
sometimes in unexpected places.

During the end of a recent West Coast excursion, Providence’s What Cheer? Brigade wound up under a bridge in Seattle, playing Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets,” a favorite song of the 18-member street band, with a group other musicians. It was a moment that left “big tough boys in our band crying,” recalls trombonist Susan Sakash, because of “the sense of creating something beautiful at the end of this long, draining tour.”

Such unexpected and improbable spontaneity is a trademark for What Cheer?, one of a growing number of groups that blend punk rock ethos, the mobility of marching bands, and a idiosyncratic sense of willful anachronism, centered on brass instruments and the absence of electronic amplification.

In August 2007, for example, What Cheer? played a national festival in a small hill town in Serbia, a situation that left the locals “really excited and confused,” Sakash says. “They weren’t turned off by our level of rowdiness,” although the band’s less than orthodox musical arrangements, as well as the participation of female musicians, caused some head-scratching. In response, says Sakash, without a hint of understatement, “We tried to explain that we’re not a traditional band.”

As the local flowering of a small yet significant musical subgenre, What Cheer? Brigade puts a distinctive Providence touch on a broader anti-materialistic movement, combining an implicit social critique with the pure joy of a great sound. The band’s winning name references both the long-ago arrival here of Roger Williams, who fled religious rigidity in Massachusetts, and the sense of pursuing an offbeat contemporary quest.

Close to home, the Olneyville-based ensemble is just as likely to be found taking part in a scholastic parade in Central Falls, staging an impromptu musical farewell for an I-195 on-ramp facing imminent destruction, or playing a fundraiser for state Representative David Segal (D-Providence), a progressive favorite, at Nick-a-Nee’s, the Jewelry District watering hole.

What Cheer? aptly describes its mode as “Luddite hardcore” — a celebration of reclaiming public spaces and bringing people together in an era of rampant consumerism and prefabricated culture. At the same time, the band’s people-powered music is simultaneously old, new, dramatic, stirring, heartfelt, and groove-inducing, for young and old alike.

“I’ve never seen any other band have the ability to get such a broad cross-section of the community dancing as quickly, as vigorously, as they do,” says Segal. “I’m not much of a dancer myself, but I can’t help myself when I’m at one of their shows.”

If you haven’t experienced the What Cheer? Brigade, a prime opportunity is close at hand.

After taking part this weekend in Honk! ( — a festival of similar street bands in Somerville, Massachusetts — What Cheer? is among the outfits playing this coming Monday, October 13, in “Brass Bands Conquer the New World,” a celebration in Providence of the street band movement.

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