Struttin’ their stuff

Langhorne’s Uptown String Band finishes sixth after captivating ‘Voodoo Gras’ performance in bitter cold Mummers Parade

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Pulling some strings: The Langhorne-based Uptown String Band placed sixth in one of the most brutally cold Mummers Parades to date. Its theme was ‘Voodoo Gras,’ a clever combination of spookiness and celebration. Source: Kathie Fox Photography

Four frozen horns. Two broken props. One stunning performance.

To see and hear Uptown String Band on Jan. 1 during one of the most brutally cold Mummers Parades in recent history, one would never know the trials it faced prior to reaching the City Hall judging zone. That’s because this Langhorne-based band is a group of true professionals dedicated to their craft.

Led by captain Jamie Caldwell, a Parkland resident and Neshaminy High School graduate, Uptown celebrated a sixth-place finish for its “Voodoo Gras” performance, something many of the members weren’t expecting.

In the days leading up to the parade, one question was on every Philadelphian and Mummer’s mind — would this long-standing new year’s tradition go on as planned, or should it be postponed? Meteorologists predicted a high of 20 degrees and accompanying strong winds…not your ideal conditions for playing instruments and pushing massive props.

The decision was brought to a vote on Saturday, Dec. 30, by parade and city representatives, with the majority in favor of holding the parade Jan. 1 despite the weather forecast. Even though the Philadelphia String Band Association voted “no,” preferring to wait for a warmer day for the sake of their instruments, they knew the show must go on.

For Uptown and many other bands, a huge concern was their horn sections. Often when a musician blows into the instrument, saliva falls into the valves. In near-freezing conditions, this would be detrimental to a performance. In an attempt to combat this, Uptown’s president and music director, Thor McLaughlin, sprayed Rain-X on the horns, hoping the formula would prevent any fallen saliva from hardening.

All fingers were crossed when the big, bitter day finally arrived. During the band’s march leading up to City Hall, all was well with the instruments. But the same couldn’t be said for two of the props, which were snapped clean in half by the ripping winds. Still, Uptown continued, though it wasn’t in the clear yet. According to McLaughlin, the moment they reached the main judging zone, half of the horns froze up. There was no time for more Rain-X. It was showtime.

Uptown’s ‘Voodoo Gras’ performance was truly a sight to see. In a clever theme combination, the bright colors associated with a New Orleans Mardi Gras were meshed perfectly with the spookiness of a haunted cemetery. An old school yet beloved Mummer tradition, 24 of the band members donned large, feathered back pieces with voodoo dolls attached.

As the group moved in rhythm to its choreography, it smoothly transitioned from Mardi Gras-esque songs like “When the Saints Go Marching In” to darker tracks rarely heard on Broad Street such as My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade.”

Though a few of its props were lost to the winds, Uptown didn’t fail to visually entertain. Gray, rusted cemetery gates were strategically placed to the front, sides and back of the band, transporting viewers to a Mardi Gras party for the undead. Midway through the performance, a giant skull sporting a purple and green top hat made its way front and center.

The show ended with a bang as captain Caldwell emerged, masquerade mask across his eyes and black glittering umbrella in hand. He was no longer strutting, but instead “sailing” on what appeared to be a massive ship resurrected from the ocean depths.

After an entire year of planning and practice, it was all over. But Uptown wasn’t feeling a sense of pride.

“When we walked out of the judging area, we were disappointed,” McLaughlin said.

He explained how, from their perspective, it was far from their best performance. The frozen horns and broken props were on the forefront of their minds, and they assumed these issues would be noticeable to the judges as well. Still, in true Mummer fashion, the band went back to its clubhouse at 831 Avenue D in Parkland for a celebration. These guys weren’t about to let one performance and some bad weather ruin the festivities.

A few hours later, the band anxiously awaited the parade results. Even though many members didn’t expect good news, McLaughlin said they would be proud no matter what. You can imagine Uptown’s surprise when it learned about its sixth-place finish. Caldwell ranked eighth for string band captain.

“It was quite an emotional experience,” McLaughlin reflected.

The next day was spent disassembling the skulls, ships and graveyard gates, artistic creations that took months to finish. Thankfully, the band members had an unprecedented top 10 high to get them through the work. Though the excitement will slowly wear off as they head back to work and life, no Mummer need fear…by next month, the process begins all over again as string bands make the mad dash to submit their themes for 2019.

“It’s 365 days,” McLaughlin said. “It never ends.” ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com