At least once a year, I like to take a drum corps road trip. At the very least, I make it out to Rochester, New York, for each year’s DCA championships. This year, as my wife was out of town for the weekend, I decided to make the trek to Grand Rapids, Michigan, site of the 2011 DCI Western Michigan premiere tour event. The drive gave me an excuse to blast drum corps out my car window, but, being the boring geek I am, I listened to podcasts for most of the drive.
When I got near Grand Rapids, I found out that my wife’s friend, Dan Alt, and his wife, Leigh VanHandel, were also attending the show. This would be Dan’s first drum corps show, while Leigh was a drum corps vet like myself, having marched Limited Edition in 1990 and the Velvet Knights in 1991. Leigh hadn’t been to a show in years, though, so there were many changes to the activity which she had not experienced. As a result, we each had unique perspectives on the shows we watched.
Speaking of Rochester, the first corps we saw tonight was the Preston Scout House Alumni Bugle Band, a corps I normally see in Rochester as part of the DCA Alumni Classic. This was the first time I saw Scout House so early in the season, but they were the class act on the field I always see in September, if maybe a little less clean, like every other corps in June. The classic Scout House rep was there, including the Waterloo Fanfare, Oklahoma, Waltzing Matilda (Dan and Leigh both loved the marching Glockenspiels), and the Colonel Bogey March. Leigh also commented on how Scout House played themselves off the field, something which, as far as I know, is only done by Pioneer in the junior corps ranks. The crowd was very appreciative of Scout House’s performance, especially during the company front and color presentation. Guess there was enough old school fans in the stands who knew what was going on.
The first junior corps to perform was the Racine Scouts, the lone Open Class corps of the night. I had the pleasure of interviewing the Scouts’ new Assistant Director, Mat Lunsford, during the winter rehearsal season, and I was impressed by his enthusiasm for the corps he marched with and now had a major hand in running. As a result, it surprised me that the corps had such an incomplete show, with the percussion only performing the opener, members standing on the end zone boundary, and no closer on the field at this point in the season. That being said, the instructional staff is working these kids hard to max their performance. With just 12 horns, the corps put out a large sound as every member of the horn line contributed to the performance. There was also a lone guard member for the entire show who performed her heart out. This is a show I will need to see again so I can properly judge it once it is in its complete state.
Teal Sound opened the World Class portion of the show with their 2011 production, Sinvitation 7, a show based on the 7 deadly sins. This is a corps which stormed into World Class last year with a very aggressive show, both in terms of performance an in the use of electronics in the front ensemble, fitting considering they used the music of Dream Theater, Jordan Rudess, and Coheed & Cambria as their source music. This year, the musical selections ranged from Pink Floyd and Dire Straits to Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer, with original music from Chuck Naffier thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, at least from my first read, I don’t feel the show takes the corps to the next level after last year’s powerful statement. While the field percussion throws down throughout the show, the show concept and how the design team attempts to utilize it seems to hold the corps back. The pit has an electric violin and oboe and, unfortunately, neither have the impact the designers hope for. The electric oboe sounds, well, fake, and the effect could have been better produced by a mellophone soloist, while the electric violin, which is played very well by the soloist, sounds terrible over a sound system and has no impact when it obviously should. This is another show which I need to see later in the season, but my first impressions are not good from what I saw that night.
The Troopers seem to be doing the opposite of Teal Sound. Last year’s show, an attempt to push the envelope by a corps which had returned to Finals for the first time in 23 years, had come up short, both in terms of design and competitive success for the Long Blue Line. This year, with the Road Home, the Troopers have regained the momentum they lost in 2009. The show is full of high impact moments which the horns pull off very well, including a chord near the end of the show held out FOREVER by the horns as the drum major turns and salutes the crowd. The percussion, complete with tilted snares, also throws down throughout the performance. My biggest complaint is with the guard uniforms. When I first saw them, I liked how they evoked the Western frontier, perfect for the Troopers. That was before I saw that, for the female guard members, the uniforms have a half a skirt for one leg and a pant leg for the other, creating a very strange effect which doesn’t make any sense to me. The corps uniform is a variation of last year’s strange departure from the traditional look of the Troopers, with a yellow accent added diagonally to the front of the jacket and a yellow sash hinting at a uniform cummerbund off the let leg. The uniform is still two tone, split in strange places, but the yellow additions help to hide that, improving a weak design. This corps wants back into Finals and they have the show to do it.
I had my second viewing of the Glassmen tonight. I had trouble getting into the show when I first saw them two nights ago in Pittsburgh, but that was their first competitive performance of the season and, to me, it showed. Tonight’s performance was better, although I still would like more dynamic contrast from the brass. Word from other Glassmen fans was that the corps felt they performed flat tonight, so that might have been part of the issue with the horns. The drums also didn’t pull any miracles off this time and beat a corps like Bluecoats in the technique caption. I’m not sure if that was a total fluke/misread by the Pittsburgh show judges or if the stars just aligned that night. I still enjoy watching the guard, who have a very dynamic book from an equipment standpoint. I’m also starting to get the story line, which, while not the vampire genre some DCPers were afraid of, still focuses on a forbidden love between light and dark, so you True Blood and Twilight fans will still be happy. I won’t give away the ending if you haven’t seen it.
I should be against the use of electronics and synths in drum corps, but, to be honest, I’ve enjoyed their use much more than I expected. I will turn in my traditionalist hat later. The reason I bring this up is the extensive use of electronics and synth effects in Blue Stars’ show, ReBourne. The pre-show starts with heavy use of rain/thunderstorm sounds and what I assume is the lietmotif for Jason Bourne from the original soundtrack. That motif is repeated throughout the show by both the brass and the pit. The brass, by the way, has a big sound, and the book they’re playing gives them plenty of opportunities to let loose. Like last year, the percussion gets multiple moments front and center, which is difficult to do as this year’s show also has a large ramp/scaffold contraption on the right side of the middle of the field. Different sections use this stage throughout the show, but I’ve yet to see it used in a way other than a place for performers to stand and play from. The music makes me interested in seeing the Bourne movies, which are available for Instant Watch on Netflix, by the way, and the mix of Bourne and Matrix soundtracks works well. This will be another strong Blue Stars show which will place in the middle of the Finalist pack.
I’ve seen the Bluecoats twice already, once during the opening season cinecast and once in Pittsburgh. I wasn’t sold on the performance or concept after the cinecast, but, to be honest, I wasn’t sold on any of the performances from that. The Pittsburgh performance got me very excited, especially with all the craziness that horn line plays throughout the show. Seeing the show again in Grand Rapids made me a complete convert. The opener, Radiohead’s Creep, makes me melt right away when the low brass comes in on their first notes of the show. Deus Ex Machina has the corps split into four groups, what Michael Gray describes as “quadraphonic sound”, as each group performs their own piece of the musical pie, creating a great audio effect which will get even more awesome as the season progresses. It’s the closer, Harvest, where the fun really begins. The tuba section finds a way to outdo their feature from last year’s show, while the baritones take the subtitle of the piece, “Concerto for Trombone”, seriously, making their horns growl and scream. The percussion started the season very strong and are contenders for High Percussion at Indianapolis in August. The question for me is the visual, something which held the corps back last year and is still not scoring near the top corps at this point in the season. I also expect the ending of the show to get more meat, once again like last year, as it currently feels like the end of a piece and not just of the show.
A corps which has made great use of pop/rock music over the past few years is Carolina Crown. Looking at their reps from the past decade, you see music from Queen and the Rolling Stones along with more standard drum corps icons like Copland and Bernstein. This year’s show, Rach Star, mixes some of those rock music selections with that of Rachmaninoff. You’d think this was a stretch just to make a play on words with the show title, but it works incredibly well. The pre-show features the percussion section, along with help from the horns and guard mosh pitting and crowd surfing on the field. The horns crowd surf a piano player to his place in the pit, something I never thought I’d see or write about in the drum corps activity, but then he starts playing, and you realize that this kid is hella talented and why Rachmaninoff was chosen for this show. The show officially begins with the horns belting out Bohemian Rhapsody, a classic from the Crown rep, before moving into Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, last performed by Phantom Regiment in 1995. Even during the classical portions of the show, there are elements of rock added, including a drum set break at the end of the opener. The drum line, who already had a drum solo of sorts during the pre-show, gets an official one during Paint It Black. The percussion has plenty of beats to play, a Lee Beddis trademark, and it will be interesting to see how well they clean it up during the season. The ballad is a medley of the opening of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, giving the horns a chance to show their range at quieter dynamic levels. The closer is Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Piano Concerto #1, which is a drum corps staple in its own right ever since Blue Devils brought it to the field in 1985, and is a personal favorite of mine. I should mention that the visual program is exactly what you’d expect from Crown, with high speed pass throughs and mayhem throughout. If Crown can get this show clean, it will be a contender come Indianapolis.
Then again, the Cavaliers may have something to say about that. When you have a show featuring multiple sections playing while upside down, you’re definitely winning the crowd. That happens a lot in XtraordinarY, an obviously play on the all-male aspect of the corps. The show also focuses on the song Nature Boy, both with samples played from the pit of the David Bowie rendition of the song and as the ballad of the show near the end. The horns have really kicked up the intensity in 2011. During the Cavaliers’ title years of the past decade, the horn line, while incredibly in tune, was often criticized for playing with less volume (or more control, depending on who you asked) than their competitors. That is not the case this year, as the horns are felt as much as heard throughout the show. The percussion, who started all of this upside down madness at the beginning of the season with the tenor line, is another Mike McIntosh special and is currently the front runner for top honors in August. The guard gets the award for most interesting prop use in 2011 as, at one point, multiple members are walking on stilts and carrying large shaman-like staffs. I don’t know what that’s supposed to signify, but outside of the kitsch factor, I’m not sure the impact is what the corps wants. That’s really my only complaint with this show, though, as the Green Machine is running on all cylinders at this point in the early season, taking all but one sub-caption en route to a first place finish by more than three points over Crown and Bluecoats.