Music News & Reviews

Great American Brass Band Festival: North, South to square off

Saxton's Cornet Band performed at the 2009 Great American Brass Band Festival. This year, the group will portray the South in the Battle of the Civil War Bands on Sunday. A few years ago, the same band represented the North.
Saxton's Cornet Band performed at the 2009 Great American Brass Band Festival. This year, the group will portray the South in the Battle of the Civil War Bands on Sunday. A few years ago, the same band represented the North.

The North and South will do battle again in Danville on Sunday, each side taking dead aim at the other with their horns.

Horns?

Well, this is the Great American Brass Band Festival, and the atmosphere is not necessarily hostile.

"It's a lot of fun," says Ron Holz, trumpet professor at Asbury University and artistic advisor to the festival. "It's a more intimate and interactive event."

Holz says the festival presented a similar North-South battle of the bands a few years ago, and the band playing the North in that event will play the South this year, the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. That's the Central Kentucky-based Saxton's Cornet Band, which has the Brass Band Festival as a regular part of its itinerary.

"Most Civil War-era bands have their feet pretty firmly in the North or the South," says Chris Miller, a tenor horn player in the group. "But Kentucky was a border state, so we can switch."

At that former fest, they squared off against the Old Town Brass Band of Birmingham, Ala. This time, the rivalry is with the Dodworth Saxhorn Band of Michigan — definitely to the north.

Miller says there are some differences in planning to be a Northern band or a Southern band. Representing the South means playing Dixie or Bonnie Blue Flag, while a Northern band would be more inclined to play the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Then there are songs that both sides would play, such as Home Sweet Home, "which has lyrics that reflect a soldier from either side longing for home," Miller says.

In the event, the bands will trade songs back and forth, which Miller says reflects what would happen during the Civil War, when Northern and Southern camps were close enough that they could hear each other. At the end of the event, the groups will combine for a few numbers. That also is indicative of the Civil War, when sides often liked the same songs, even if their ideals didn't match up.

The event will top off a full weekend of brass band music, which has become an early June tradition in Danville. In addition to mainstays like Saxton's — which will have its own set at the fest, as will Dodworth — Holz says there will be new acts, including the New Orleans-based Soul Rebels Brass Band.

"The festival has always wanted a traditional street band, like ones that would march after a funeral," Holz says. "And this is a younger group, so it's got a feel like hip-hop brass."

Holz says festival organizers also are excited about bringing a traditional military group: the Marine Band Brass Choir of Washington, D.C.

And topping the event with the Sunday afternoon battle, he says, is a way of closing the festival with a bang while saving most of the marquee artists for the biggest stage Saturday night, at the Great American Picnic.

As for a winner, Holz and Miller say the object is not to determine a victor.

"It's just a lot of fun," Holz says. "And it's very interactive. It will be a great way to end the festival."

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