The Wire Adventures in Modern Music

Soul Desert

Nevada's Burning Man festival demands that spectators get up and get involved. Mark Pilkington heads into a dust storm of beats, bongos and boho dancers, only to discover a host of unconventional music, performance and sound installations beyond generic Trance.

Burning Man's alternative desert storm, including(bottom right) Extra Action Marching Band.

    The Undoubted Stars of the Festival, however, are the crew of La Contessa, a 60ft long replica Spanish Galleon built over an old yellow school bus. Better known as the Extra Action Marching Band, they recently gained notoriety around the San Francisco Bay Area for their involvement in the city's energetic anti-war demonstrations and were, rather improbably, this summer voted the region's best 'rock' act by readers of the SF Bay Gaurdian. Numbering anywhere between 12 and 45, the marching band incorporates a full brass section (with sousaphones, of course) and sequined, scantily clad majorettes waving flags, flaming tourches of sometimes rifles.
    One particular memmorable night was the Extra Action crew join forces with Portland's March Forth 3/4 Marching Band, around a float hosted by the appropriately horned, furry legged, hoofed and tattooed Mystic Crewe of Satyrs' truck carried a 20 foot long golden ram whose time, it seemed, had come. Following a procession out into the middle of the playa, the 30 or 40 strong strong percussion and brass ensemble - nattily dressed like dust-covered 19th century gentlemen cowboys - began to play around their cheerleaders, while fire-breathing satyrs keep the crowd at bay. As the percussion frenzu grows ever more intense, fauns and maenads begin to dismember the ram. Each slice , filled with white wine, is passed to the increasingly Doinysian crowd below as gleeful hooves, boots and rolling bodies kick up dust. Once drained of sweetness, the still dripping sheep segments are piled into a pyre and ignited, the mighty rythmes almost lost for a moment in the roar and crackle of the hundreds of firecrackers inside the carcass. Throughout, the Extra Action sound of joyfuelled aggression remains impressively coherent - the crew of La Contessa clearly run a tight ship.
    Such Bacchanalian scenes follow the xtra Action posse most wherever they go. Founder Simon Cheffins was previously part of legendary blood, sex, and percussion outfir Crash Worship, whose live performances were notoriously orgiastic affairs. "It's about movement, excitement and intensity, It's about getting people to let go," says the intense but charming Cheffins, whose eye alone would win him a Charles Manson lookalike contest. "Our shows used to be extremely confrontational, but we're now more interested in playing around with the context of the marching band." In the past the bnd have been heavily inspired by Eastern European brass bands, though their curren set featuresrenditions of the entire first Black Sabbath album, with guest megaphone vocals by the scatologically inclined performance artist Extreme Elvis. "we see it as tying together three forces of evil: idol worship, cult worsip, and musical worship," says Tommy, one of the lead drummers. "high school marching bands traditionally do film and TV themes, and also rock covers, so whar we're doing is just taking that tradition a little bit further."
    While gigs supporting David Byrne have been good for business, the band are more at home p[laying in abandoned amusement parks, leading street processions or raiding Burning Man's Acid Trance tents. They're also booked to play a wedding in Hungary in 2005.
Offical festival Website:www.burningman.com. Other relevent sites: www.playasound.org (sounds of the Playa), www.extra-action.com (Extra Action Marching Band), xiphoidprocess.com/io (improbable Orchestra).