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Punk and Protest

The Haymarket Squares are among the bands playing the first Wild Wild West Fest this weekend

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Marc Oxborrow's voice is shot. The night before was he was scheduled to be interviewed by the Tucson Weekly, the upright bass player and vocalist for the Phoenix-based punkgrass and folk band The Haymarket Squares strained his voice at a Planned Parenthood benefit in Yuma.

"We did two sets last night, and because of a mediocre sound system, I did a lot of yelling to hear myself over the rest of the band," Oxborrow says.

But he'll have to recover soon because The Haymarket Squares are playing another gig later that night and still another the next day. The current flurry of activity is unusual for a band that plays maybe twice a week while most of its members hold down day jobs, he says.

The Yuma incident is indicative of The Haymarket Squares' collective nature in two ways. Their normal modus operandi is to play loud and fast and passionately, and they often throw their support behind organizations on the left end of the political spectrum.

"I think there's a natural affinity between the type of music we play and lot of progressive causes," Oxborrow says. "We have played at benefits for groups like the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), Food Not Bombs and No More Deaths, to name a few. We've played a number of protests and rallies and that sort of thing, particularly around the time the state passed SB1070."

And although the band is based in the Valley of the Sun, its members enjoy playing Tucson as much as they can, having appeared several times in the Old Pueblo at such venues at Plush, the Surly Wench Pub, the Rialto Theatre and the now-defunct Dry River Collective.

The Haymarket Squares are returning to Tucson to perform at the inaugural Wild Wild West Fest this weekend. The music and arts festival, which is being organized by members of the Tucson band 8 Minutes to Burn, will last three days and occupy the Harmony & Health Ranch, just west of Tucson.

The event will feature overnight camping in a natural environment, art installations, exhibits about sustainability, a yoga pavilion and, of course, dozens of musical artists. Among the bill's headliners will be Stanley Jordan, Melvin Seals and the JGB, the Mystic Roots Band and The Magic Beans. For more information, see azwildwildwestfest.com.

The Haymarket Squares will play two sets at the Wild Wild West Fest. They'll start at about 6 p.m. Friday, April 25, Oxborrow says.

The Wild Wild West Fest is part of a new effort for the band. "It's our goal to start trying to get involved in more festivals from now and into 2015. It's going to take a little more planning on our part because most of them require you to think about your schedule at least nine months in advance, and we just have to adjust our way of thinking. We've done a fair amount of touring as a band, but most of us don't do this as a full-time thing."

To make ends meet, Oxborrow is a graphic designer, while mandolin and piano player Mark Sunman is a yoga instructor. Guitarist John Luther Norris is a food server, and slide guitarist Mark Allred is studying to be a luthier. Drummer Aaron Hjalmarson makes his living primarily through playing (with a wide variety of groups) and teaching music.

In The Haymarket Squares, Oxborrow and Sunman usually alternate singing lead, depending on which of them wrote the tune, but one of the most striking elements of the group's music is their four-part vocal harmonies, which range from pretty to rowdy and back again.

"We work hard in advance to work those parts out," Oxborrow says, because even though the group plays with oodles of rambunctiousness, their vocals sound clean and professional.

The aggressive bluegrass attack of The Haymarket Squares inspired them to create their own genre. "We've been calling it 'punkgrass' because we have bluegrass instrumentation and harmonies and the kind of energy, humor and anger associated with punk rock."

Observant listeners also will hear echoes in the band's sound of the protest folk of a half a century ago.

"We've had more than one person, usually people of the age that remember that stuff, tell us 'You remind me of the Weavers, or the folk music from the '60s.' I think it must be that combination of a sound and the drive and the statement that reminds them of that time."

The Haymarket Squares - whose members range in age from 21 to 50 - have made three independent albums, the most recent of which is Righteous Ruckus, which was released in 2013.

Although their songs include such topical ruminations as "Revolt Resist Rebel," "Buy My Vote" "Radical" and "Sheriff Joe" (about Phoenix's infamous lawman Joe Arpaio), the group also don't mind a fevered romp such as "Let's Get Fucked Up," the occasional Pink Floyd cover ("Hey You") or their tongue-in-cheek, propaganda-baiting cannabis anthem, "Gateway Drug," which is the subject of a wonderful video you can see on YouTube.

Oxborrow says he and the rest of The Haymarket Squares don't consider themselves anachronistic. They may be playing old-timey folk and bluegrass that harks to a time that pre-dates most of their births, but their music feels contemporary to them.

"Possibly it's because we are actually embarrassingly ignorant of the bluegrass tradition. Last night, someone came up to us and asked us to play something from the O Brother, Where Are Thou soundtrack, and we don't know that stuff. I'm probably the closest thing to a genuine bluegrass fan in the band and but I only really know the obvious stuff, like the Louvin Brothers and the Stanley Brothers and stuff."

The Haymarket Squares aren't copping from or trying to revive the styles of an earlier era; they're fully in the 21st century.

"We're not borrowing from the older musicians. We're creating something new we are passionate about, and what could be more timeless than getting together with your friends and playing cool music?"

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