As if wrangling 19 people for rehearsals and performances wasn’t hard enough, the Fogcutters, Portland’s all star big band, also set for themselves each year the challenging task of arranging for a full brass section 16 different songs by local musicians. 16 songs, from hip hop to folk to funk to indie rock. Bandleaders Brian Graham and John Maclaine certainly don’t take it easy.
Big Band Syndrome, the yearly concert extravaganza that features the Fogcutters and seven local bands and artists, is set for this Friday, Dec. 5 at the State Theatre in Portland. It’ll feature the fruits of that full year of collaborative labor, with arrangements from Maclaine, Graham and a number of the band’s 19 members.
“Every year we go into it thinking ‘Oh, we learned so much from last year’ and then all of a sudden we always find new things to try,” said Graham, who plays saxophone. “After four years, now we have a really streamlined show… and our arrangements are better than they’ve ever been.”
The featured artists at this year’s Big Band Syndrome are the popular Americana four piece the Ghost of Paul Revere; Frank Hopkins, of the funky rockers Line of Force; longtime Portland area songwriter Emilia Dahlin; soulful songwriter Eric Bettencourt; passionate rapper Lady Essence; Rustic Overtones drummer and songwriter Tony McNaboe and Sorcha Cribben Merrill from the musically diverse band Sorcha and the Clearing.
“The whole goal is to highlight a diverse array of Maine music and people from here,” said Graham, who is also in Portland funk powerhouse Sly-Chi and Vermont-based funk band Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds. “The big thing we look for when we pick people to arrange for is musicians who work hard. Everybody in the Fogcutters is in at least one other band on top of this one, so that’s a quality we look for. We are a workhorse band.”
The Fogcutters are not a big band in the old school, jazz and swing sense of the term. Rather, they are a band that’s big — two vocalists, guitar, bass, drums and piano; four trumpets, four trombones and five saxophones, from alto to baritone. The band is able to play a huge variety of styles, from blues and r&b to folk, hip hop and indie rock, both in their regular shows and at special occasions like Big Band Syndrome.
“When we do Big Band Syndrome, sometimes we sit down and think, ‘How are going to write big band charts for this?’” said Graham. “But then you listen to it a different way and it clicks. We’ve considered working with a metal band each year because there are so many great metal bands in Maine, but it’s really, really challenging. I want to say it will be done someday.”
Though this year the Fogcutters played more shows than ever — 12 in total, in and around Portland — the reality is that time and money are the biggest roadblocks from keeping the ship sailing further.
“We’d need, like, two tour buses and a lot of money,” said Graham. “In 2015 we are really hoping to play in more of Maine. More arts centers and theaters. That’s our big goal. But yeah, if someone gave us a million dollars to do a national tour, we’d jump on it.”
Tickets for Friday’s show are $15 in advance or $20 at the door, and are available via statetheatreportland.com. For more information, visit thefogcutters.com.