It wasn’t Bushwick pseudo-grunge or College Hill hipster. There were drums, consistent, heavy, beating, beckoning me in. There was a mosh pit, moving as one monolithic force. There was a bridge, and under it, there was What Cheer? Brigade.
Most Brown students have seen What Cheer?, a staple of Providence’s offbeat culture since 2005, perform before; but most have seen them out of their element, on the Main Green, on Brown’s turf. What Cheer? in their natural habitat—in last night’s case, in a concrete cave below the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier—is a whole other story. A Providence story.
On the walk to find What Cheer?, we passed The Whiskey Republic, Al Forno and Lola’s, all on South Water street. But that’s College Hill’s Providence–and more specifically, a small subset of College Hill’s Providence. At the end of the street, by the hurricane barrier, that’s Providence, a Providence not even aware of (or that doesn’t care about) the world of Whiskey Wednesdays and swaths of parents shuttling their kids to Al Forno on family weekend.
Last night, What Cheer? closed Pronk, or Providence Honk Festival, an event aimed to “Reclaim the Streets with brass, beats, and feet!” According to their website, Pronk fashions itself as “a heartfelt antidote to mainstream culture…a street intervention like no other, with outfits and misfits from Rhode Island and beyond.” The day began in India Point Park at 2 p.m. and culminated below the bridge with everyone’s favorite 19-piece brass band from Providence.
Mainstream it was not. Sites included: a man in the crowd writing a novel on the back of a steno notebook (I asked him what it was about, to which he replied, I kid you not: “Art.”), a couple in matching bumblebee print outfits (who were also aggressively grinding) and my political science TA.
Brown students were speckled throughout the crowd but a clear minority. You could tell a College Hill dweller from the crowd because they were always slightly out of the loop, wiggling their way to the ground a few seconds after the rest of the crowd when What Cheer? decided it was time for a communal get-low.
The group of students I went with and I were actually huddled around a Russian brass band named Pakava It for 15 minutes, under the impression it was What Cheer?. Only after Pakava stopped playing only fifteen minutes after What Cheer? was supposed to go on did we realize we were in the wrong place. We made our way under the bridge, to that amass of bobbing heads bound by graffitied (“Meow man was here,” “This wall is (f)art,”trippy vision.”) grey walls.
We couldn’t even see them at first, but we heard them. And we smelled it. Joints ablaze and bodies undulating, the rank and sweet combination of weed and body odor wafted above the crowd. But beyond that, the crowd was unexpected. No one was exactly who you were expecting to see; they were slightly older or slightly more straight-laced or something. There were the die-hards, the ones singing along to the (few) words. Many people were dressed up, donning tutus, bright colors and jumpsuits, but it was unclear what the theme was.
I saw a sousaphone with WHAT CHEER? emblazoned on the bell. What Cheer? was huddled into a corner. With no real stage to stand on, they were part of the crowd, only distinguished from the masses by their instruments. And, in some cases, not even then–players from throughout the day carried their own instruments, joining in at times.
It was clear this event was an exception. I overheard a woman say to a friend, “It’s so weird. There’s, like, over a thousand people here right now.”
And the music. You can’t not dance to this music. Strong and brassy, it filled the space–for future reference, areas under bridges have fantastic acoustics–and filled the listeners. The individuals in the crowd ceased to matter, as we became one cohesive unit pulsating to an undulating, undying backbeat. The music reflections this cohesion; their live set is sort of all one long song, a singular experience rather than a succession of separate entities.
As the set went on, What Cheers?’ antics became frantic, but never out of tune with the crowd and the music. As the tension created by their instruments swelled, they entered the crowd, dancing with listeners. A member of the band stood atop a bass drum, being held up by around 15 crowd members. He danced, played the drum and jumped off into the crowd, which, like a sea carrying driftwood, passed him from hand to hand.
Then it was over. They marched out of this underground otherworld and we followed, getting bottlenecked by the small entranceway. They continued to play and, like the Pied Piper, we followed them across the street to the water, where the music swelled and all I saw were smiles and people losing themselves. They shot up some fireworks, whose passage to the sky was thwarted by the bridge. No one seemed to mind.
Images via Jacob Koffler ’17. Video via Andrew Linder ’17.