Left Hand Valley Courier - All Local, All The Time

The beat goes on in Niwot


September 2, 2020

Gayle Weiss

The Niwot Community Semi-Marching Free Grange Band debuted as the Niwot Community Band at the town's 2005 4th of July Celebration.

Back in the summer of 2005, Biff Warren, his daughter Katie, and a few other like-minded locals decided to dust off their band instruments and revive the time-honored tradition of live concert music in Niwot. In the decade and a half since, the band's popularity, its repertoire, and its name have exploded in size, while its unique musical stylings have become the soundtrack for the town's signature events. Needless to say, 2020 has been quiet for the Niwot Community Semi-Marching Free Grange Band performance-wise, but band members have been mastering some new material behind the scenes, and the group is more than ready for a pandemic-inspired show at the long-delayed First Friday Art Walk on Sept. 4.

"Music is a big part of my life and not being able to get together and make some was very hard," said interim director Richard Clark, a longtime tenor saxophone player and 13-year member of the group. "Along with the band shutting down during COVID, I lost the church choir and my hammer dulcimer lessons and jams. So all of my music-making outlets disappeared at once. It's great to be getting the band ready to perform again."

Clark's enthusiasm for playing and performing is typical among the musicians in the NCSMFGB, who represent all ages, abilities, and levels of experience. In addition to the Warrens, the early lineup included Heatherwood resident and tuba player Wally Moffatt, who was their source of band music; Mike Weiss, who also played tuba; Lee Shaw on percussion and equipment; Nalani Clisset on bass, and Heather Meier, the NHS band director, as their first conductor. Gayle Weiss was the first official photographer, then joined the band later on clarinet.

The membership has waxed and waned over the years, but seems to have settled around 35, more or less evenly divided between woodwind and brass. To be sure, there have been a few ringers in the band over the years, but most members are amateurs who simply love making music with others.

And they've been making a lot of it over the years, both close to home and far afield. Not only are they a mainstay at events such as Enchanted Evening, 4th of July Parade, and National Night Out, the group also entertains the crowd at select Niwot High home basketball games, appears in most local parades, and has even traveled to Denver for performances, including one in a very high-profile venue.

For me, [the most memorable performance] was playing the National Anthem for a Rockies game a few years ago," Clark said. "Just one song but lots of eyes and ears were on us."

As for the overly descriptive name, that comes with an explanation nearly as long. In its early days, the group was called the Niwot Community Band, but as it began to grow, so did its appellation. According to Warren, the "Semi-Marching" refers to the practice of some members walking alongside the group's flatbed trailer during parades and is also a nod to Niwot's designation in Boulder County's Land Use Code as "semi-rural." The Free Grange part, meant to echo "free range," was added in tribute to the band's early string of free concerts at the Left Hand Grange.

But nowhere has the NCSMFGB grown more than in its musical range. At its debut gig on July 4, 2005, their set list included a smattering of holiday standards such as Yankee Doodle Boy and the Star Spangled Banner. Today the band's catalog contains more than 200 songs, ranging from the classics to pop and rock hits such as "Zoot Suit Riot," "Holiday," and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," their most requested tune.

"We have everything from The Beatles to Mussorgsky, so there should be something recognizable to everyone in the mix," Clark said.

The band also gets a surprising number of requests for their version of Iron Butterfly's 17-minute opus "In-A-Gadda-Da Vida," otherwise known as the drunk pronunciation of "In the Garden of Eden."

"We first played "In-A-Gadda-Da Vida" for a Christmas program since we didn't have much Christmas music then," Warren said. "It's been a staple of our Christmas performances ever since."

Indeed, ironic setlists have long been a hallmark of the band's performances and curating them has become one of Warren's specialties over the years. For example, at the 2018 National Night Out performance, Warren went with a safety-oriented theme, including "Stayin' Alive" for first responders, "Light My Fire" for firefighters, "Born To Be Wild" for the Colorado State Patrol, and "Peter Gunn Theme" for law enforcement personnel.

Karen Copperberg

The Niwot Community Semi-Marching Free Grange Band played a crime and safety-themed set at the 2019 National Night Out in Niwot event, featuring songs such as "Stayin' Alive," and "Light My Fire."

For their upcoming show during the art walk, the NCSMFGB will be playing a set inspired by the events of 2020, featuring newly added songs "A Whiter Shade of Pale," and "Keep Your Hands To Yourself". The band will also honor the winners of the Why Not Niwot Juried art show with "Pictures at an Exhibition" and "Paint It Black."

While their musical take on the pandemic might be a little "tongue in cheek," the NCSMFGB is taking the county's public health guidelines to heart for the performance at First Friday. Not only will band members wear masks when not performing, there are also masks for the bells of the horns. Musicians will also be spaced at least six feet apart at all times, and the masked conductor will also be distanced.

Other than that, Warren, Clark and other band members said audience members can expect a typical performance from the NCSMFGB-full of sly humor, rollicking tunes, and, most of all, "musicians who are happy to be playing for them."


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