The Band Geek and the Movie House: Drum Corps on the Big Screen

From Geek Goes Rogue TV Editor Zach Lorton, as told to by the trumpet sitting in his closet, yearning to be played once more:

On Thursday night, I did something that most people would consider geekier than even being a geek.  Even normal geeks might call me a geek with a sneer while glaring at me through their disdainfully smudged glasses, padding their leather satchels that held their precious 20-sided dice, nose-breathing in disgust.

I attended a marching band competition.  In a movie theater.

Actually, I’m dumbing it down a bit — it wasn’t marching bands, but rather, Drum Corps International’s World Championships quarterfinals, which was simulcast live to theaters as the event took place from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana.  For those unaware, Drum Corps International is a group of drum and bugle corps from around the country made up of kids between the ages of 14 and 22.  All the musicians are made up of percussion and brass players, with no woodwinds to be found.  They spend the better part of their summers developing a field show, touring all over the country, then they gather in one location each year for the Summer Music Games, a culmination of all their dedication and hard work, in a fight for the world championships.

This is athletic musicianship, and when it comes to marching music, DCI is the Major Leagues.  And the geekiest of all sports.

Of all of the things I’ve done in my life, there are only 3 things that I regret.  Not having marched in drum corps is one of them, especially since I marched with the Pride Marching Band at Missouri State University.  Several of my friends in that band marched corps, and I envied them all because of the level of musicianship these corps attract.  These are the best of the best, and innovations have abounded throughout DCI’s history.

Until recent years, the only way you could take in a DCI show was by watching a live or pre-recorded broadcast on PBS, or to buy a ticket to a show if you happened to live close enough to where one was being held.  Over the last ten years, however, Fathom Events has partnered with DCI to bring the activity to more people through cinema broadcasts, with crystal clear picture, powerful audio, and the best seats in the house.  If you haven’t checked out a Fathom event yet, go to www.fathomevents.com to see if anything is playing in your area soon.

 

Thursday night’s championship preliminary event featured all of the World Class and Open Class corps in competition.  Each corps can have up to 150 members, although the Open Class corps usually tend to have a less strenuous touring schedule and are made up of younger, less experienced marchers.  The top 25 advanced to the Semifinals on Friday night, and the World Championship Finals on Saturday will see the top 12 corps face off.

And since I’m not just a geek, but also a nerd, here’s my play-by-play take on Thursday’s cinecast.

Pacific Crest is the first corps featured on the cinecast, which began much earlier in the day.  Their show, “Transfixed” tells a love story, and it has carried them to the #15 seed for the first time in their history.  Cheesy program, and not the most well-told story, but there was also a lack of precision in the marching and execution of music.  Lots of swagger and attitude in the drumline, though.

The Troopers, with their program “Magnificent 11”, take the field in the #14 seed to respectful and anticipatory applause.  Dubbed “America’s Corps”, they are one of the founding corps in DCI, and their show really spoke to the tradition of music that honors traditions in America.  The sunburst move at the apex of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was stirring, and it raised goosebumps on my arms, as well as people in the stands at the stadium.

13th ranked Crossmen’s show, “Protest”, is a powerfully themed program that uses many songs from protest eras to highlight social justice and social involvement.  The color guard used protest placards as part of their arsenal, to great effect.  The corps’ strong point seems to be jazz, and it was during songs like “We Shall Overcome” that they held firm, but not as well as when they swing.

Blue Stars from Wisconsin have the same traditional uniform, which says you’re not going to see or hear much that’s different from these guys.  “Voodoo: I Put a Spell On You”, their 2013 program, was performed with great execution of the concept.  A lot about the show worked, and a lot didn’t — some very power visuals in the hornline, and very colorful use of the color guard.  What you don’t realize is how much the smallest details can cause general “wow” effect to be won or lost, and unfortunately, the show isn’t as polished as it could be.  They sold it the best they could, especially their rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You”.

Spirit of Atlanta has been knocking down some doors this year with their show “Speakeasy”, which felt very much in place since The Great Gatsby hit theaters earlier this year.  Man, they had fun with this show — secret knocks, flappers, and “Sweet Georgia Brown” tearing down the house.  Some great charting, especially during the percussion feature, which included some nice “wow” moments.  They ran out of steam about 2/3 of the way through the show, though, and that’s the kind of momentum you can’t let go of that quickly.

The Blue Knights from Denver brought their show “NoBeginningNoEnd” to the field, using circle motifs throughout the field, mostly in their design.  The show’s ending was changed for championship week, probably to create more of a final punch to the show.  Good idea, good concept, but they didn’t sell it all that well.  The performance level began to look stepped up at this point, with more precise marching and playing to be found.  Still, nothing too overwhelming from these guys.

Boston Crusaders began their show “Rise” with a different look — gray marching jackets to begin with, and the corps exploded out of the tunnel onto the field, literally, with the sound effect of an explosion and power effects to make it look like they were coming out of a debris field after an explosion.  This is the corps’ response to acts of terrorism like the bombing at the Boston Marathon, featuring “Falling Slowly” from the movie Once, “Lean On Me”, and music by Hans Zimmer from Inception.  Great general effect moment during the show when the entire corps screamed “I … WILL … RISE!” and tore off their grey jackets to reveal the classic red jacket with white sash underneath.  The only unfortunate thing about their performance was that they used baby powder to create the dust effects at the very beginning of the program, which is apparently against DCI rules for competition, so they were deducted one point, bringing their #9 seed down to #10 going into the semis.

Madison Scouts from Madison, Wisconsin celebrated their 75th anniversary in 2013, and their show “The Lone Survivor,” was based on a Marine trying to make his way back to his home after being the only one left out of his platoon to survive an attack.  Fantastic use of the color guard, who was in full fatigues, and who really sold the storyline.  The opening move featured the entire hornline rotating in one straight line (very hard to do), morphing into their signature Fleur De Lis, and later in the show launching into the corps song “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which saw many former Scouts members in the crowd standing up and singing it along with the corps.  One of the drum majors even faced the crowd and conducted them.  Very powerful stuff from this long-standing tradition of excellence.

The Cavaliers from Rosemont, Illinois brought the energy they are known for, and their show, “Secret Society”, brought a new look to the field.  The corps members were all draped in black capes and hoods, and communicated this concept VERY well.  Fantastic staging, good framing with props, and great bursts of color once the cloaks were removed.  The show’s theme of brotherhood was represented by music from Michael Giacchino (from 2009’s Star Trek) and Hans Zimmer (from the Da Vinci Code movies).

Ranking at #6, the Bluecoats entered to the familiar “Bluuuuuuuuue” cheers to present their program, “…To Look for America.”  Nice use of large sections of bleacher seating, which they used all over the field to create space, shape, and opportunities for choreography for all members.  The color guard represented the new generation, with no singular uniform, but all the members dressed in street clothes.  They began and ended with a parade motif, and carried strains of “America”, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, and Concerto for Wind Ensemble (movement 5) through to the show’s satisfying conclusion.

Phantom Regiment, one of my personal favorites, became grand storytellers this year with their show “Triumphant Journey”, a fairytale of sorts, that begins with the corps in the shape of a book, literally being opened to reveal the story inside.  This is the closest you will ever come to throwing a symphony orchestra onto a football field, and the corps members were carrying trees, slaying a giant-sized evil queen, and performing lush music by Hermann, Elgar, and Shostakovich, a staple of the Regiment.  Still, the show didn’t have the big “wow” factor that I think most fans were looking for, but they played extremely well.

Santa Clara Vanguard, whose 1989 performances of “The Phantom of the Opera” brought them the championship, return to the Broadway stage with music from “Les Miserables”.  Not even trying to tell the story on the field, the corps instead lets the music carry while the guard members represented in their French styled costumes.  A host of stand-up panels at the backfield sideline served as hiding areas for the entire corps, which at one point disappeared while one mellophone player carried the music along with the pit percussion.  Then to watch the corps emerge little by little, the guard displaying the red, white, and blue colors of the French flag, and to hear the grand music of “One More Day” and “I Dreamed a Dream” filling the stands brought an emotional response to just about everyone in the room.  This was classic drum corps done very, very well, and it earned the corps a #4 spot in the semifinals.

The Cadets blasted their way into the top 3 with a show based around the music of modern composer Samuel Barber.  This is tough stuff to play, but these guys played it VERY well, taking command of the field with the confidence that years of experience can bring.  Large towers were used as props and staging, but didn’t have quite the effect that I believe the designers intended; they were actually more of a nuisance to see on the field than a help to the corps.  The color guard was a little off, but used some unique props and tools, and the hornline and percussion sections were about as tight as they could be.

Carolina Crown has been dominating this entire season, rocketing out of the gate with something to prove, and they have been consistently holding steady all season.  Staying ahead of perennial front runners Blue Devils until about two weeks ago, their hornline has been called the best out of any of the corps this year, and perhaps one of the best hornlines that has ever taken a DCI field.  Their show “E=mc2” took the idea of mathematics and created a killer field show, featuring music from Strauss, Alan Silvestri, Philip Glass, and Paul Lovatt-Cooper.  The brass section was impeccable, the percussion solid but could have used a little polishing, and the color guard was about as flawless as I’ve seen all night.  They have been pushing to make this the season they break into that winner’s circle, and this show just may be the thing to get them there.

The closest thing DCI has had to a nightclub act, the Blue Devils from Concord, California have won more championship titles than any other corps, so they are often the ones to beat.  They were seeded #1 ahead of Carolina Crown with a show called “The Re:Rite of Spring”, their take on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which premiered 100 years ago.  The Blue Devils often relies on big brass and heavy swing arrangements, but this music was much different than what most BD fans are used to hearing.  Very difficult to take in, but the corps managed the music better than most would expect.  They are also known for their big props, and this year was no different, with 100 tall, portable poles being moved all over the field during the performance, containing and challenging the corps members as they marched in and out of them, and creating frames on the field.  Not only was the music executed well, but the corps was zooming all over the place with an extremely high level of precision.

At the end of the evening, Blue Devils sat in the #1 spot going into the semifinals, but with only a 0.15 lead over Carolina Crown.  As I write this, it is 2:10 a.m. on Saturday morning, and I just found out a few minutes ago that Carolina Crown leaped from 2nd to 1st in the semifinals, giving them a #1 rank going into the finals Saturday night.

 

How I wish I wasn’t working so I could pay $69.00 and watch the finals online.  Which you can do for the first time this year if you go to www.dcifinals.com and pay up.  You’ll be able to see this unfold live as it happens, as long as you’ve got the scratch.  The fun begins at 5:00 pm Eastern/4:00 pm Central on Saturday, August 10th.

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