This camera-phone video of Sidewinder, featuring Tech Sgt. Angie Johnson covering Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" went viral last year. Sidewinder, part of the 571st Air Force Band - a unit that is slated for stand down - has probably played its final songs together.
The little military unit that became an improbable Internet sensation will soon fall silent.
Sidewinder, a rock band within the Air National Guard, whisked from Afghanistan all the way to Ellen via massive Internet popularity, has likely played its last gig.
“It’s been a wild adventure,” said Sidewinder’s front woman, Tech Sgt. Angie Johnson, a former active-duty Air Force intelligence analyst who also competed on NBC’s “The Voice” last March. “Sidewinder had only been home from last summer's deployment (to Afghanistan) for about two months when we learned of the decommissioning of our unit. Needless to say, we were shocked and heartbroken.”
The Air National Guard plans to phase out six of its 11 regional concert bands, converting hundreds of musician slots into other guard specialties, confirmed National Guard spokesman Rick Breintenfeldt.
One of the six posts slated to stand down is the Air National Guard Band of the Central States, a collection of 35 brass, woodwind, and percussion players based in St. Louis, otherwise known as the 571st. Originally formed in 1941, the ensemble was the first National Guard band ever deployed to Afghanistan. They performed classics like “In the Mood” and patriotic pieces for fellow troops and civilians. Their 35 slots already have been slashed to 19. Some of the remaining musicians, who, like other guard units assemble for two weeks each year and one weekend each month, plan to leave their part-time military jobs. Some will assume new guard duties.
But it was Sidewinder, the 571st’s band-within-a-band, powered by bluesy vocalist Johnson, which truly put combat boots and camo on the American pop music map.
While touring U.S. bases in Southwest Asia last summer, preparing to fly to Afghanistan the next morning, a sweaty Johnson and her fellow musicians cranked out a blazing, acoustic version of Adele's "Rollin' in the Deep.” A soldier in the small audience grabbed his camera phone and captured the “super rad little impromptu gig,” as Johnson calls it. On Aug. 8, the video was posted on YouTube. After two days, the clip had reached some 130,000 views. By Aug. 19, the video was virall: 1 million views and headed to more than 3 million clicks.
Sidewinder soon was invited to play on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”and at the White House. They slapped groovy beats and racked up good will for the American military – all of which made the decommissioning news so hard to hear for the musicians in uniform.
“We all shed tears that day,” said Johnson, who plans to continue her fledgling music career and serve with the 571st until the unit is formally mothballed in September 2013. “It didn't make sense to us and still doesn't. But when you're in the military, you learn that people with a lot more stripes on their arms and brass on their shoulders are entrusted with making hard decisions for the betterment of the Armed Forces as a whole. So, we've come to accept the decision ... I will dearly miss my current guard family.”
“It’s a little incongruous to chose our unit to stand down when it has garnered the most attention,” agreed Maj. John Arata, commander of the 571st.
Arata also plays clarinet and piano – but was best known for his funky, blue fiddle in Sidewinder. Like Johnson, Arata will stay with the downsized concert band until its last day. Until then, the 571st intends to book occasional gigs when feasible.
“We’ll just need to be more creative with our instrumentation. We’ll have to draw upon our members’ flexibilities. There are fewer events that we can accept,” said Arata, a music teacher at Eureka High School, southwest of St. Louis. “We’ll try and do military-support events where they would only require a small unit, maybe a brass or woodwind quintet.”
The other five Air National Guard bands scheduled to shut their instrument cases for good in 2013 include units based in Georgia, Ohio, Washington, California and Massachusetts.
“Those selected for decommissioning are the bands closest to active-duty regional bands and the bands with the most sparsely populated (areas of responsibility),” Breintenfeldt said.
The 571st has long been tasked with playing events in Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas and South Dakota.
“The opportunity to support troops in those four states – especially for those of us who have been able to deploy to the Middle East, who have that meaningful experience of relieving the stress of life in a forward, deployed location – has been a very distinctive privilege for us,” Arata said.
“I’m sorry to see it go. And I’ll miss it a lot. It has been a good run.”
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