A Providence Brigade

Story by Ben Williams

In the graffitied recesses of Olneyville’s abandoned warehouses, you’ll get glimpses of the beehive of industry Providence once was. The crumbling facades of former textile factories now provide a place for artists to congregate. Gone are the jitters of industrial machinery. If you walk down the right street after work hours, you might just hear What Cheer? Brigade practicing. The boom of the bass drum spills through the closed windows of the warehouse amid the howl of the trombones. Providence has become a different sort of beehive. And nothing symbolizes that better than What Cheer? Brigade.

Their practice room seems a little small for a brass band of 23 people. A brand new Persian rug dries on the floor. “Really ties the room together,” you’re tempted to say. But you don’t want to be that guy making the Big Lebowski reference. You’re promptly served a ginger beer at the makeshift lounge in the corner, surrounded by piles of equipment and the band’s song list.

What Cheer? Brigade, founded in 2005, is Providence's iconic brass band with 23 current members. 

Interviewing What Cheer? is a bit like trying to pick out one instrument to listen to in the band’s repertoire. Everyone has a different opinion about the group’s ethos, and they’re much more than the sum of their parts. “It’s everyone we know who plays the instruments we need,” says trombonist Chris Erway, one of the original members, to a chorus of disagreement. “It started out that way, but it’s not that way anymore,” chimes in Jori, a long-time fan and recent addition to the band on the bass drum.

Band members come and go; only five of the original musicians remain. As a result, the group has changed, incorporating different styles and genres, from Bollywood and metal to hip hop and bachata. “We’ve become weirder,” says Nathan, one of What Cheer?’s trumpet players. Their Slayer cover, Raining Blood, is mixed with Bubamara, a Serbian-Roma love song. They’ve also performed on stage with Blondie.

What Cheer? is more than just a band. It’s a community. They have ties to many of Providence’s local arts organizations, like AS220, New Urban Arts, and 186 Carpenter, as well as other brass bands across the nation. Being based in Providence gives them a devil-may-care attitude that big city bands just don’t have. “We’re very Providence in the way that its kind of a dumb idea what we started to do. But we did it anyways and it turned out to be brilliant. That’s as Providence as it gets,” says Will, known as Chop Chop the Chimp for his distinctive mask and frenetic percussion.

The Brigade has a new rug. 

The Brigade has a new rug. 

On May 29th, the band will celebrate their 10-year anniversary at The Columbus Theater. The line-up isn’t settled yet, but there will be “elements of surprise” and probably a good smattering of the local arts community. Over the course of the past decade, What Cheer? has become an integral part of the Providence scene, living up to its name, taken from the city’s official motto. They’re badass enough to perform alongside the rowdiest of the city’s noisy punk bands, yet playful enough to show up at local festivals and weddings. Their punk aesthetic brings that post-industrial northern attitude to the celebratory spirit of New Orleans second line music. It’s as if you’ve taken a wrong turn off Frenchman Street.

They have two albums: the charmingly titled We Blow, You Suck (2009) and Classy: Live in Pawtucket (2010). But the band is really all about the live performance, the blurring of the lines between audience and band. It’s “a safe space for people to go crazy in.” Just as they pull people into the melee of their performances, long-time fans and strangers off the street have been absorbed into the band.

They don’t need electricity or traditional stage equipment, meaning they can go mobile. What Cheer? can disrupt the urban monotony of any city street, turning a regular afternoon into a communal celebration. In the past, they’ve played in front of the Coliseum in Rome. When Hurricane Irene shut down New York City, the band marched into Times Square for an impromptu performance, playing until the NYPD started grabbing Chop Chop’s drum sticks.

The band has a penchant for debauchery. They’ve broken into the World’s Fair dome in Knoxville as well as a bowling alley in Providence. In New York, they put on an illicit firework show at PS1. Keith Moon would be proud.

Apart from the upcoming anniversary show, the band has its usual two-week summer tour scheduled for June, including stops in Germany, France and Spain. Of course, they’ll open the second day of Spring Weekend. If you have any sense, you’ll be there on the Main Green. As our only local act, it’s worth your while.

Catch a sneak peak here.