If Chicago’s tourism committee was serious about a new theme song—one that made people want to come to Chicago rather than, you know, kill themselves—they wouldn’t have chosen Chicago (the band), Buddy Guy, and Umphrey’s McGee. They would’ve chosen Mucca Pazza.
The “circus punk” marching band is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Well, that isn’t actually true—the band’s 30-plus members aren’t great at hiding themselves. They play for free in Logan Square. They’re fixtures at Tour de Fat. They leave the stage during live shows to blast the audience from the floor—and the balcony if there is one. At any given moment, they might turn up in an Andrew Bird video or on the corner outside your apartment.
Led by composer Mark Messing, who here is a sousaphone-playing, megaphone-wielding maestro whose graying muttonchops have no rivals in our modern age, Mucca Pazza mashes up marching-band brass with amplified instruments like guitar and violin and theatrical skits led by a co-ed team of cheerleaders. On Safety Fifth, the band’s third recording, the compositions are complex enough to satisfy the musically learned, while avoiding the sorts of intricacies that would undermine its ability to bring it. These are pep-band tunes you head-bang to.
Stylistically, Safety Fifth’s range is wide. “Sexy Bull” meshes surf rock with Balkan horn riffs. “Tube Sock Tango” does a Latin thing. The only problem is that it can feel like the recording of a Broadway musical you haven’t seen. You know you’re missing something important. Those horns just don’t blister through ear buds; the recommended way to hear this record is to see the group play it live.
Mucca Pazza’s Revenge of the Nerds-style coup is far from over. These once-ridiculed band kids have appropriated their shakos and created an outfit that’s one of the most kick-ass musical collectives in Chicago, one that’s continually spinning off new artists that promise a hell of a lot of fun for the foreseeable future. (We’re looking at you, Ssssnake.)