It was a hot, late summer Saturday, and my son and I had come to the Chicago Botanic Garden for an outdoor playdate with some friends. To our surprise and delight, the band Mucca Pazza was performing there that afternoon as part of a series of events called Flourish, a celebration of the garden’s 50th anniversary. We walked quite a bit to see them play, all the way to a new event space within the garden called the Rookery. The area features a series of interactive living castles sculpted out of willow saplings by artist Patrick Dougherty, placed across from a pond. The whole picturesque scene was the perfect background for the explosion of sound, color, and joy radiating from Mucca Pazza, a punk marching band formed in 2004 and composed of “30-odd members” playing all kinds of brass, string, and percussion instruments, influenced by the likes of Bach, Charles Mingus, Rush, and Duke Ellington.
At this point a beloved Chicago institution, Mucca Pazza’s animated presence has graced local traditions, such as the yearly Lula Cafe Halloween Parade in Logan Square, and historical occasions, such as the opening of the 606 trail in the spring of 2015. Their energy is contagious, their music transporting, their moves engaging, and their looks fascinating. A jumble of color, fun patterns, and details from head to toe, their style could be defined as marching-band-meets-crayon-box-meets-mid-oughts-new-ravers.
Mucca PazzaUpcoming shows and music at muccapazza.com
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“The mismatched, colorful look of Mucca Pazza has been part of the band’s look since the beginning and also feels like an analogy for who we are: colorful, joyful, mixed up, and still stylish and ready to party,” says guitar player and band member Charlie Malave, 39. “We want to spread joy. We believe that radical joy is a powerful force for good. We want our audiences (and ourselves) to have a positively transformative experience. We also want to make good music. Music, clowning, and mismatched outfits might just seem silly, but we take silly very seriously, because when you do that you make a fertile ground for joy to grow,” Malave adds.
Some of the directives for Mucca Pazza’s “un-iforms,” as Malave calls them, are “that pants have stripes, but you can also wear a skirt. It should be a marching band uniform, nothing military. It should make you feel good. There should be a marching band hat.” With that in mind, each band member does their thing. “Our band is a great mix of humans with different style and taste. For some, Mucca is an opportunity to be more flashy than they normally would. But for others, it’s just an extension of the type of weird that they normally are,” says Malave.
“Flourish: The Garden at 50”Through 9/25: daily, 10 AM-6 PM, Regenstein Center, Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe, chicagobotanic.org for information about upcoming events
Band cheerleaders Rawson Vint and Sharon Lanza particularly stood out with their bright outfits, silly humor, and free-spirited choreography. “As part of the cheer section, I try to base my look on every intramural sports uniform. I’m going for ‘confused-but-excited-for-tryouts,’” says Vint. Lanza was sporting a red vintage T-shirt that read “I [heart] a scientist,” a matching red pleated miniskirt and rainbow knee socks. Trombone player Melissa McNeal also opted for a striking pair of (mismatched) knee socks. For her, joining the band was a dream come true: “From the instant I first saw Mucca Pazza, way back at the Abbey Pub in the early oughts, I knew these were my people—and I began a years-long scheme to join them in their weird. My success in pulling that off is one of the brightest joys of my life,” she says.
Charlie Malave seems excited for what the future holds for them: “We’re recording a new album; we’re coming up on 20 years of being a band in 2024. For that milestone we’re hoping to do a European tour and a big family reunion. And hopefully the band can live on for at least another 20 years beyond that!” Hopefully they’ll still be playing the Lula Cafe Halloween Parade, and hopefully Lula Cafe will still be serving freshly baked cookies at the end. Longevity does seem to be a feature of Chicago’s most cherished enterprises.
Slideshow: photos by Isa Giallorenzo (click through below)