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revenge of the band geek
and having a blast in the process
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

(Author’s note: While big city dwellers may have had the advantage of seeing Blast! last year, it only debuted in creator James Mason’s native state of Iowa in November. Viewing the show there prompted this column.)

When the show Blast! debuted in London in late 1999/early 2000, some of the theaterazzi waved their programs as if swatting a fly. Critic Richard Morrison said, “The show has little plot and even less intellectual substance…showbiz the Wal-Mart way.” Michael Coveney commented, “You feel that if this lot weren’t so gainfully employed, they would be joining Mormon sects and going on shooting sprees in shopping malls.”

Too often, that which is different is ridiculed or ignored. But to say trombone and tuba players are ignorant serial killers with a flair for discounts is a bit extreme, don’t you think?

Other critics in London and America compared the energy, thundering style and diametrically different presentation of Blast! to Riverdance, Stomp, and Cirque de Soleil. That seems more appropriate. All of those theatrical presentations picked up common but dusty entertainment forms and polished them with the liquid mercury of the 21st century. Celtic step dance, street “busking” and performing under the big top would never be viewed the same again.

That is the wonder of art. It exposes a regular element out of stasis. Transforms the ordinary into the enchanting. Celebrates humanity instead of hubris.

A simple twist of a marching baton converted an inherent American performance medium into an international phenomenon. Blast! magnifies the importance of instrumental prowess, dazzling precision and orchestral knowledge. Suddenly, the young woman practicing Charlier Etude #2 over and over on her coronet instead of watching MTV is “in”. The guy who never stopped tapping his fingers in algebra now sets the heartbeat for 60 onstage and thousands in the audience.

That is not to say that everyone who played trumpet or snare drum in the high school band was a geek – but if you remember, Friday afternoon pep rallies were held for the football or basketball players. They were the ones considered to have talent worth noting, while the band offered a soundtrack for the plays and half-time amusement. Now every night, thousands of people cheer the enthusiastic abandon with which marching band, modern dance, and drama intertwine.

Events like Blast!, Riverdance, Stomp and Cirque de Soleil herald diversity and extraordinary talent, yet the primary component is still allegiance. There are certainly principal musicians, dancers and acrobats in these performances, but the strength and beauty lies in the ability to join together those of different expertise, age and race and blend them as an alchemist would to form a dynamic, fresh entity. It’s more than an ensemble – it’s a primordial movement.

Critics may complain about a lack of noted stage tradition or defined plot with some of these theatrical hybrids, but the audience responds to the energetic message about the human condition: everyone has creativity, ingenuity and rhythm in their soul. When we meld into that belief, en masse, we all belong. We all matter. We are all necessary.

As the members of Blast! exited stage right and left from the pit, the audience continued to clap; not in the scattered report of applause, but in an even flow of 4/4 time, long after the last performer left the concert hall.

One body.

One sound.

You don’t see that in the stands at a football or basketball game.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

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jeff miller
12.14.01 @ 9:37a

Any show that encourages and inspires people to excell in the art of expression is fine by me. Whn I went to see Stomp, I left the theater wishing I could quit my job and hit the road with the troop. Critics love to complain about shows that leave audiences feeling like they just might actually be able to do that thing, which, if you ask many artists, is the point of performing.

tracey kelley
12.14.01 @ 10:13a

Absolutely. It's the connection that all performers crave. Its a fuel, an energy, that both performer and audience require to feel alive.

And when that connection is made, it's magical.

I get a big kick when some writers loftily say "Well, I write for myself. I don't really care what people think." Well, then, what are you doing reading and selling your crap to me? If you have no desire to connect with me, then just do your morning pages privately and get over yourself.

mike julianelle
12.14.01 @ 11:14a

I write for myself. I don't really care what people think.

Not to revisit an old discussion, but if performing or writing isn't intended to first make the performer or writer happy, then it's hollow and bogus. Sure, connecting with others is part of it, if you like, but you don't do it for others, you do it for yourself, or else you'll begin to resent it.

Gotta love those two comments the critics made. Good stuff!

tracey kelley
12.14.01 @ 12:42p

Ahh. Well then. I'll remember not to critique you, since you don't care what I think.


While I agree with your comments, I believe anyone who desires to be true to his/her self will not do something unless it makes him/her happy. So that's a given. Unlike child prostitution in Bangkok, we have not been sold to a performer's/writer's sweatshop.

Although .10 for 2,000 words feels like it sometimes.

But any artist, writer, musician, dancer, magician or any other performer who is trying to make a living needs to make a connection with those who might possibly support their efforts. This does not necessarily equal selling out.

adam kraemer
12.14.01 @ 1:05p

Yeah. It's an interesting dichotomy, but if you only perform/write for yourself, then why bother to show it to anyone else?

russ carr
12.14.01 @ 1:16p

I'd worry more about selling out if someone would actually flash me some money some time.

Interesting turnaround, to go from Coveney's comment regarding Blast! performers as potential members of a dubious (some would say, cult-like) religion...to describing how they left the audience in a uniform thrall of collective mesmerism.

tracey kelley
12.14.01 @ 3:41p

Hyp-MO-tized. Hep me. Hep me. Quack like a duck.

Russ, I think we were all just slaves to the rhythm. It is interesting to note what connection you, the reader, picked up that I did not intend. Now see? We have something here.

There are many things I write that I don't show to anyone else. Usually for good reason. Is it best to keep those things to myself. Oh yes.

sloan bayles
12.16.01 @ 1:20a

Once again Trace, your writing transfixes me into the story. This time to a subject matter I otherwise would have given little (alright, no) thought to. I suppose I take diversity for granted, whether it be in the arts, classrooms, political platforms or our lives in general. I forget that there are the frustrated critic actor, musician, etc. wannabe's in the world who would rather put down the non-conformist than applaude someone's thinking "outside the box". A terribly overused corporate cliche I know you hate, but it fit. See ya Thursday!!

jason siciliano
12.16.01 @ 1:09p

I played snare in high school band. Just to clear things up: Trumpeters and percussionists, both male or female, are cool. French horn guys are geeks, French horn girls are babes. Same with flutists. Male saxiphonists are either stoner cool or lazy geeks. Sax girls are geeks. Clarinet girls are geeks, except for the lead clarinet who's the cutest girl in the band. Clarinet guys are geeks. All trombone players are geeks, period.

jason siciliano
12.16.01 @ 1:16p

(Ahem! That should be both male and female in the second sentence, not male or female...I revert to high school grammar in my defense of the often misbranded high school percussionist! Bah!)

greg cunningham
12.16.01 @ 10:12p

Okay, here's my two-cents, and even though I did not see BLAST, read any reviews (until Tracey's) or talk to anyone who had seen it,I do drive by a billboard advertising the show every day on my way to work so I think I am qualified to speak out-
My first impression was that BLAST was a copy of the popular theatre trends like Stomp and Tap Dogs (?) but which unfortunetly had no hip gimmick to jump on to. I never liked the big band sound ('cept for Brian Setzer's band)-too brassy...

greg cunningham
12.16.01 @ 10:18p

...and, other than the baton twirler babe, I dreaded that part of half time shows during college football games. So I'm not convinced that by putting it on a stage and charging $45 it would suddenly become "art", or "theatre", or even "entertaining". But, between that and sitting through JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK one more time, I would choose BLAST anytime.


roger striffler
12.16.01 @ 10:30p

First of all - Wow! Very well said. I think you've not only managed to put your finger on the dynamic that occurs in shows like this (I'm personally thinking of Cirque, not having seen Blast!), but done a fantastic job of describing it!

Second - I write for myself, because I feel a need to try to describe, express or convey things, and it's a need that simply must be satisfied. However, I care very much what other people think, because my ultimate goal is to communicate, and I want to know if it's working.

tracey kelley
12.17.01 @ 9:38a

Jason, you crack me up. Funny to see the division within the group.... :)'Course, you just blew my theory all to hell.

Sloanie - thanks! ;)

Greg, you know I'd say the same about Iggy, (gasp! The Blasphemy!)- to me, he's not music, but I respect what he introduced to the world of music and what he stands for overall. Nevertheless, I can't say watching someone smear his excrement on his body is "entertaining."

Mike, this is not a good time to use the "Yeah, but he was drunk" defense.

Roger, I completely agree with you, but I'm still going to prod you with a stick - why do we have such a need to communicate?

adam kraemer
12.17.01 @ 10:42a

While I wouldn't actually want to watch it, I would definitely consider someone smearing excretement on himself to be entertaining. I might not consider it "entertainment," however.

I think my favorite marching band moment was watching Woody Allen atempting to play cello in (I think) "Take the Money and Run."

mike julianelle
12.17.01 @ 11:41a

My favorite marching band moment is the USC-Stanford game (is that right?) when the Trombone player gets smashed after the band took the field before the game ended.

jason siciliano
12.17.01 @ 12:07p

It was Cal vs. Stanford I believe, but yes, it was a Stanford trombone player (trombone = geek) that got whacked.

I forgot about tubas. All tuba players are geeks. And I was mistaken in that all percusionists are not cool, cymbal players are either geeks (male) or trampy drummer groupies (female).

I dare each and every one of you to research how many of your hero rock stars were in high school music programs! Even your beloved Radiohead! (Yes they were! Muh- ha-ha-ha!)

matt morin
12.17.01 @ 2:11p

If you haven't guessed yet, Jason was a drummer in his HS band.

tracey kelley
12.17.01 @ 3:46p

This is important, though. For those who didn't go off to front rock bands or at least supply the backbeat, there are still musical career options. i.e. Blast.

What are you doing now, Jas?

michelle von euw
12.18.01 @ 9:26a

HS drummers definitely had the cred that other instrument players didn't. There was something always cool about the drums that chicks dug.

matt morin
12.18.01 @ 7:25p

We're talking in relative terms, right? No matter how cool the drummer was, he never won homecoming king or went out with the cutest girl in school.

jael mchenry
12.19.01 @ 11:03a

Ours did/was. But our school was so small everybody had to do everything. I was an oboe-playing alto-singing valedictorian cheerleader.

Damn. Cat's out of the bag.

michelle von euw
12.19.01 @ 11:21a

Ours did/was, too. But then again, I week to Geek High School.

jason siciliano
12.19.01 @ 1:49p

Thanks for asking, Tracey. I still play drums, in a local (San Francisco) band called...drum roll, please...Janitor's Lounge. "The sign on the door said Janitor's Lounge, so he did." There are only two kinds of band names. Dumb names, and dumber names.

I still love playing, though my rock star dreams have (almost) vanished. The other guys in my band are in the same situation, professional guys who've played for years and want to keep the fire burning, no matter how small the flame. We practice on average once a month, and gig on average once every two years. Though last year we gigged twice at, if I might be so bold to brag a bit, Hotel Utah and Paradise lounge, both cool bars.

I might also note that we opened for a band that, two years ago, played at the same music festival as Neil Young, who's played with Pearl Jam, making our degrees of separation from PJ but three!

jason siciliano
12.19.01 @ 1:50p

Oh, and the girls in high school loved me.

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 2:22p

So Jay, you're a Pearl Jam fan?

matt morin
12.19.01 @ 3:02p

1) Jason's band puts on a good show. They should play more often.

2) The girls loved your mullet Jason. It was all about the mullet.

tracey kelley
12.19.01 @ 3:16p

Jael, you had me right up until "cheerleader." Somehow that just never entered my mind picture of you. No offense, of course.

Jason, I have a friend who's son is in a San Fran band called Bottle Dog - ever heard of them? This summer they just packed up the van and headed to the East Coast and back, making just enough for gas money and lovin' every minute of it. But they too are looking for "real" jobs, 'cause the rock star dream is dim.

All the drummers at my school were hotties. Although none of them have amounted to much since, but still, definite hotties in h.s.

I wasn't a joiner. 2 choirs, jazz dance and journalism were the extent of my extra-curricular activities, give or take the days I was actually *in* school.

russ carr
12.19.01 @ 3:36p

Jael's always been a cheerleader in my mind pictures of her. Occasionally a nurse. Once a librarian.

But now the oboe thing...ooooh kitty!

matt morin
12.19.01 @ 3:40p

There have to be incriminating photos around somewhere...

russ carr
12.19.01 @ 3:49p

Neither of the high schools attended was large enough to support a band...thus, no band camp, thus no nymphomaniacal flute playing redheads, thus no reason for me to even pretend to learn an instrument.

I loved my journalism class, tho, Tracey... It was the closest I ever came to getting kicked out of school.

roger striffler
12.20.01 @ 8:55a

Jael's been cheerleading for Intrepid for a long time - pompom, whip...what's the difference?

There was definitely an implied hierarchy in our HS Band. Drummers were the coolest, folllowed by trumpet and trombone, then probably sax, flutes and clarinet. Of course the flutists and "1st chair" anything always thought they were the elite.

Good question Tracey - I'm not sure why I feel the need to communicate. I enjoy playing piano and guitar, etc., but have no overwhelming need to perform for others. I don't know why the feedback is so important with respect to the writing. Maybe because to some extent (at least in the case of non-fiction) it validates the way that I think?

jason siciliano
12.28.01 @ 1:08a

Michael, I do like the PJ. It's too bad that after Yield they put out like 8,000 live CDs (7,999 more than anyone needed) and became Neil Young's back-up band.

Matt, you're right, the girls loved the mullet. It was Idaho in the 80s, and mine was long, curly and magnificent. You should have seen some of the bangs I dated. So high! So crispy! So...ugh.

Tracey, I've never heard of Bottle Dog, but I'll keep my wild posting/bathroom sticker eyes peeled.

I really have to log on more often...(echoes through the empty cyber-column chambers)...often...often...

adam kraemer
12.28.01 @ 9:37a

It's probably the latent 80's metalhead in me, but I still find girls with high hair (remember I live in Queens) to be kind of a turn on in a wonderfully skanky way.

jason siciliano
12.28.01 @ 1:31p

Is it a peacock thing? What is it about high hair, the tidal wave effect, the extended forehead, that drives suburban men crazy?

tracey kelley
12.28.01 @ 1:59p

The dialogue on this site has explored many interesting areas.

Now this.

matt morin
12.28.01 @ 2:12p

We called them "backstops." When combined with extra-think eye liner, it's a dangerous combination that screams both "I am not extremely intelligent and I'm easy."

It's some sort of Pavlovian reponse, I'd guess.

adam kraemer
12.28.01 @ 2:49p

I can only assume you meant "extra-thick" eyeliner. Extra-think is what these girls definitely do not exude.

And for some reason, they all seem to be named Lisa. To quote the Caulfields' Devil's Diary: "He's got these uptight white virginal followers; I've got these metal chicks dumber than rocks."

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