BLOWING ROCK, N.C. - Soldiers with the 440th Army Band treated the town of Blowing Rock to an outdoor concert in celebration of Independence Day July 5 in the Blowing Rock Town Park.
The concert began with a 30-minute set of contemporary rock and country music by Vanguard, the 440th’s rock band, and included covers of Taylor Swift, The Kings of Leon and the Foo Fighters.
As the band played the crowd grew from a small gathering of about 25 people to more than 100, with people coming up to the park from the streets of downtown Blowing Rock, setting up lawn chairs and adding to the group of kids and adults dancing in front of the stage.
Sue Morgan, who spent her summer vacations in Blowing Rock as a child, now brings her family to the area and said she enjoys when the 440th Army Band comes to the park to play. The band tries to make it to the park every summer as part of their tour, playing free, public concerts across the state of North Carolina.
“I think it’s great and people really enjoy hearing the band play,” Morgan said. “I think this is the kind of thing that builds patriotism and appreciation for the military. Its also a great way for kids to learn about the military.”
All 39 members of the band are soldiers in the North Carolina National Guard whose jobs outside of the military range from professional musicians to school teachers and must practice with their instruments during their own time so they are ready to perform.
“We do more performing than we do training,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brent Harvey, commander of the 440th. “It says a lot about the soldiers we have in the unit for them to be able to support that mission with a limited amount of training.”
Band members attend drill one weekend a month just like other Guard soldiers and those weekends are usually spent supporting other North Carolina National Guard events.
“Being a musician and keeping up those skills is just like passing the Army physical fitness test,” Harvey said. “We only have so much time to train. We have to be able to show up and play our instruments. These guys and girls do a lot outside of their one weekend a month to maintain their skills.”
Spending time face-to-face with communities in North Carolina is part of the reason the 440th spends a week or more every summer touring the state and performing as part of their two-week annual training period, a requirement for all National Guard units.
“It’s important for us to be out here connecting with the community,” said Spc. Paul Pietrowski, of Richmond, Va., who plays trombone for the 440th Army Band. “It’s important for us to give them an opportunity to talk to someone in the National Guard and say thank you. And, they don’t just say ‘thank you’ because I’m here playing music, they say it for all soldiers in the Guard and all members of our armed forces. People just want to reach out and say ‘Hi’ to you and shake your hand. We’re giving them that opportunity.”
In small towns like Blowing Rock, citizens rarely see a soldier in uniform. Harvey said he feels that just being seen is an important part of the band’s mission across North Carolina.
“The visual aspect of us in uniform spreads the word of the Army,” Harvey said. “Beyond that, the music and professionalism of these soldiers which can not only be seen but also heard in this case, has a huge impact.”
“Part of our mission is public relations, telling the Army’s story and being out in the state of North Carolina amongst the citizens. We travel all over the state making people aware that we are here for them and showing them the presence of the National Guard.”
Performing is a job the soldier-musicians in the 440th Band take seriously.
After Van Guard finished their set, the Liberty Brass Quintet, another of the smaller bands within the 440th, set up in the grass in front of the stage and prepared to play under a darkening sky.
“Even if it starts raining we’ll keep playing, as long as there isn’t any lightning,” said Sgt. Bob Waters, a tuba player with the Liberty Brass Quintet.
After a couple songs, and some light rain, lightning was spotted and the quintet was forced to take cover under a small gazebo in the park. The light rain became heavy and although many spectators left the park, a small group huddled under and around the gazebo with the band members, hoping to wait out the storm.
After a few minutes the members of the Liberty Brass Quintet decided they would keep playing for the people who stayed, despite the thunderstorm and their close quarters. A handful of people who chose to stay were awarded with an intimate private concert under the gazebo.
Harvey said the band’s decision to keep playing for the small group that stayed speaks volumes about the character of his soldiers.
“Adapt and overcome,” Harvey said. “We are out here to please the public and the public was still here. We had a little bit of cover we could use and the soldiers made things work.”
By the end of their annual training this year, the 440th Army Band will have played five public concerts in nine days, from Johnston County in the east to Tryon, N.C. in the west.