Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

DCI At the Movies (or, “Do You Remember Green Grass?”)

(re-posted, with after-the-fact Editor’s Notes (though not many), from Facebook)

(It was August, and one could wear shorts outside without dying instantly.)

(In other words, it was a LONG time ago.)


Well, 2 million other people on the Internets are waxing opinionated about this year’s drum corps shows, so why shouldn’t I?

Having said that: here are the usual disclaimers: these remarks are for entertainment purposes only; no flames, no wailing and gnashing of teeth. I know a few folks connected with a few corps, and I like all the corps. Some years I like the field shows better than others. And my expertise in the percussion and guard worlds is so small as to be not worth considering, so forgive me – I’ve not given them their due. And the late great Donnie Jenness trained me to watch the guard and the other visual components when I go to a show. So (this is the difficult part for online people): remain calm. One man’s opinion; nobody asked.

First, the actual production values: once the theater figured out how to pick up the BIG, LOUD AND LIVE 7 satellite feed (for a while it was “Quiet, Dark and Nervous”), picture and sound were as close to great as is probably possible. I just have this horrible memory of the first year they put DCI on the big screen: every third corps, the picture froze and the sound cut out. At first, everyone murmured. The next time, everyone grumbled. From the third time on, the natives got restless.

Steve Rondinaro was exceptionally non-irritating – I usually like him, but five hours of live broadcasting can stretch anyone’s talents. (No “this place is electric” though? There were a couple of opportunities for that old chestnut. And no Reliable Rondo prediction? OK, maybe picking the Devils these days is like picking the Yankees.) John Madden, director of the Michigan State marching band, was only partly as effective as advertised, as a musicology analyst; mostly vanilla and unwilling to critique. Dennis DeLucia, for the first time in my experience, was not irritating, but rather came off as faintly humorous and on occasion honest and exactly right in his criticism. Generally, there were far fewer awkward, embarrassing (or unintentional-laugh) moments than usual.

Best speech of the night: Marc Sylvester’s reaction after his Blue Knights’ performance: were the Knights great tonight? “No.” Oddest duck of the evening: the older of the marching Cavalier brothers, in their interview after the Cavs’ show. (This moment must have rankled the corps veterans: his younger brother gushed about what a thrill it was to play his favorite instrument with the Cavaliers: piano.) Best decision of the night: not to use those recently aged-out DCI performers as sideline reporters anymore. Fine people, and largely unable to communicate their marching experience and knowledge on TV.

Al Chez stepped to the 50-yardline with his trumpet and squealed something that was supposed to resemble “America the Beautiful”. Instead it sounded like a stuck pig. (Later, Chez was interviewed and was only slightly more articulate. Stick to the horn, sir.)

Two random notes: [1] The first drop of the evening wasn’t a rifle. It was a human. Some poor trumpet player in the Troopers show went down in a heap early in the show, while backing up about 10 steps off the front sideline, and it wasn’t even Cadets drill. [2] DCI performers now risk dislocated knees every night. Not from the stress of moving at 160 bpm – but from the weirdo bodywork leg-kickouts that formerly only the Blue Knights, but now all corps, seem to need to do now.


So, on to the actual shows (and incidentally, since I was such a World Cup fan this summer, I will use World Cup grammar: “Toronto HAVE beaten the Red Sox”. “Academy have a good show”).


I’m glad the TROOPERS are back in the hunt for finals. Drum corps was weird while they were away. But their show this year didn’t involve me like I wanted it to. For all their talk about how emotionally-charged the “Wanted” theme was, and for all the emoting that the broadcasters did about it afterward, I thought it was an enjoyable but not especially meaningful 11 minutes, with the exception of the Copland moment five minutes in. I’m always a sucker for Copland. And what in the world, out of nowhere, was that?! – on the final note, at the 50-yardline a guard member pulled a pretend revolver on the drum major, who raises his arms in surrender and THAT was the closing image on a thirty-foot high movie screen? Get me rewrite!

The COLTS were a mess. Plain and simple. Adrenalin made a wreck of their opener, front sideline to backfield (it took a complete 90 seconds for them to sound like they were agreeing on a tempo). The hornline bodywork (which seems a prerequisite for every corps, since the Blue Devils’ drumline tipped this way and that in 2008) played absolute havoc with their ability to control their musical performance.

Technically, musically, ACADEMY were in control like the Colts weren’t. But their show seemed very muted because of it, certainly at the beginning; and only by the end of the show did they almost seem to make a cinema-shaking impact.

Two years ago, the GLASSMEN‘s circus show hinted that they were a corps that could design something other than a teeth-clenchingly intellectual show. So much for that trend. I was glad the broadcasters told me what the show was about, so that I could know that I still didn’t get it. The Prayer Cycle was a “spiritual, not a religious show.” In that spirit (sorry), I could’ve done without the near-Star of David and the multiple cross drill sets in the finale. Not to get overly picky, but those symbols of religion honestly distracted me from whatever spiritual interpretation of “hope” the closer was meant to convey.




They were right, Scouts: this is what you are supposed to be doing. Let us bid a fond farewell to the anemic Madison of recent memory. Prime, Hannum, etc., created a super design for a comeback show. No frills, just in-your-face. (Or at least, the frills didn’t look frilly.) This was the ONLY show that actually had me grinning from beginning to end. And this was theoretically a young corps? Just wait till they’re a bit older and more experienced. Hide the valuables!

And yet… playing a Madison Scouts, crowd-pleasing, “old-school drum corps” show will never get them near the top 5, let alone another title. As long as they’re OK with that.

(The broadcast offered up a classic Madison moment from 1975, i.e. the last time they did “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” … and it proved beyond a doubt that the old days were absolutely not the good old days. Oh, did that brass tone and intonation sting.)


BLUE KNIGHTS were fine. That’s about what I could come up with afterward. They’re solid, but they always seem to play so antiseptically. And in the same way as the Glassmen, a couple of years ago the Knights actually appeared to have fun doing a show; but… that was then, I guess.

A couple of details: I could not watch their head drum major. Forgive me, I just got back from Drum Major Academy conducting sessions; and I can deal with some of the “traditional” (and odd) conducting patterns of past Santa Clara, Star of Indiana, and Blue Devil conductors … but while I’m sure he’s a good person, beats 2 and 3 made him look like a flailer, and in the finale, he was conducting as if it was “Malaguena” … and it wasn’t. And while I’m not an expert on this matter, the BK color guard struck me as not clean, all night long. I’m not so much thinking of rifle drops, but of coordination of equipment work – throughout the show, it was as if half the people were working slightly behind the tempo. (And sadly, one BK quad player will forever be remembered as the guy who dropped a drumstick in the middle of a solo feature, on 500 screens nationwide.)

CRUSADERS: I honestly wasn’t sure how they were going to follow last year, which I liked very much, both in theme and execution. Well then – THAT’S how. A theme (the always-empty throne!) that was just deep enough to provide a framework for fun drum corps tricks and effects, but not so philosophy-laden that it got in the way of appreciating the physical performance in front of me. How to summarize this show? I want to see it again. Boston were like the Blue Knights, but with fire and unpredictability. When they needed to emote or make an impact, they let you have it. And you never QUITE knew what was coming next. Cool.

BLUE STARS: I can’t even explain why I liked their Houdini show so much. As with the Crusaders, not enough “plot” to bog down the performance, but a serious atmosphere created by the early straitjacket motif, and did they play a major chord all night? I can’t recall. Very mysterious-magicky stuff. Liked it. I guess I’d call it “good ‘n’ creepy”. The Stars’ uniforms (design and almost monochromatic color) really helped, in a way I also can’t adequately phrase (maybe it gave them a look of a newspaper photo from Houdini’s time?? Nah). The show left me frowny, but in a good way. As contrasted with a later entrant in green jerseys…

I would think that SANTA CLARA VANGUARD had just about as much fun as you can have with the music of Bartok. The broadcasters were so busy preparing the audience for dissonant music that might be difficult to listen to, that they forgot to note that most of the 1990s featured nothing but. Lots to look at, all the time; creative and watchable drill; terrific musical performance (with the exception of the electronics, which in concept were appropriate but can someone please turn the master volume down from 11 to about 8?!!). Perhaps my favorite moment was the popcorn-like effect of various horn players popping up and down in conjunction with musical accents, early in the show. It looked like a trippy game of Whack-a-Mole. Hee hee.

PHANTOM REGIMENT performed the most powerful and challenging show that I have ever felt totally unconnected to. The music, from a movie score by Michael Kamen, struck me as undeserving of being played by a corps this good. Musically, there was no flow, no sustained thematic material for an observer to hook into, just a musical version of the Blue Devils’ “stupid drum corps tricks” (sorry, “Constantly Risking Absurdity”) show of 2008. Boom! Hit! Aaaaaah! Boom! Bang bang bang! Wail! Hit. Thank you and good night. And the visual design took that into account. A million things, only ONE of which I can even remember specifically: the best moment of the show, 10 minutes in, when PR formed their chevron logo shape and stayed there for a while. Is it possible that with 2008’s “Spartacus” show, Phantom struck a vein of gold that they may never find again?


CADETS: Can I just say this one thing? Little Jeffrey makes me long for NPR narration.

Seriously: in this show, as in the “Find Your Happiness NPR Interview” show, you had a corps that routinely plays and marches and spins groundbreaking shows (with degrees of difficulty even higher than people think because they make it look so damn easy) … and the gimmicks so completely overshadowed the work being done that I wanted to go back and see their show again just to ignore the (choose your gimmick) interview, Little Jeffrey drum-major-wannabee, Bill-Irwin-1996-Olympics-comic-relief-DM-character, etc., and focus on the music and marching.

Cripe, the guy hefted a genuine twirling mace, and then didn’t chuck it? Come ON! [Late edit: I stand corrected.]

About five minutes in, I thought maybe the Cadets were about to launch into a ballad-esque item that would make us care about the Jeffrey character, or even like him – kind of like maybe my favorite Cadet moment ever, from their 1991 show, in which (to Copland’s “Letter From Home”) the guard plays baseball and one guard member (a character similar in appearance to Little Jeffrey) is ostracized mercilessly until finally he’s allowed to play by a merciful other guard member. I still get teary every time I even HEAR the music, because the story is told so beautifully, visually, and the music (which had nothing whatever to do with baseball) provided the kind of musical content sufficient to rip your heart out of your chest, stomp on it and put it back in. Jeffrey got his drum major uniform, and I was uncertain why.


Having said that…

CAROLINA CROWN are doing a Cadets show. Or at least the show the Cadets SHOULD be doing. Or maybe a Cadets show from the early 1990s? Enough about the Cadets though!, because Crown again performed a show that was entirely enjoyable, usually impressive, and executed mostly brilliantly. The vaunted brass ensemble sound was again as advertised: loud didn’t mean edgy. As an ensemble, just super, although there were occasional moments in which the high brass sections (trumpets, mellophones) committed bobbles which will of course be beaten out of them by the time Finals rolls around. I just don’t know whether they have the kind of “edgy” material that will get them the GE points to get them back to second place again, or first. And I don’t think that should be counted against them. Read on…


CAVALIERS: I like them. I have always admired their work, the muscular design, the risks they take, the sheer swashbuckling impression of their uniforms before they even play a note. Some of their field shows lately haven’t quite connected with me, and I have occasionally thought that might be a failing of mine. So here it is for 2010:

I never want to see that “Mad World” show again.

There were things that put me off before the pre-show was even over. [1] Yes, I get it, every corps member was supposed to display their own physical interpretation of “madness”, and this was supposed to be a disturbing show, but did that percussionist have to rock back and forth like some special needs kid, or some slow-motion Parkinson’s sufferer? I’m a teacher; I see that quite a bit; it’s out there; but they are humans, not conditions. [2] The “this is my rifle … this is my life” chant. The US Marines’ “Rifleman’s Creed”. I get it. Did that reference, and its inclusion in this show, unnecessarily draw parallels between the military and madness? Or was it supposed to, out of some odd need to protest our participation in overseas undeclared wars, and I’m only just getting that now? Or was it some oblique reference to the fact that if our kids come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, it might well be with post-traumatic stress disorders, or brain injuries, and let’s make sure we fund the VA hospitals sufficiently to deal with this? All I got was the “ooooo, lookit the disturbing!” vibe.

I also get that it was a spectacularly-performed show. (I would have admired things like the effect created by the guard dancing around to the Charlie Chaplin tune “Smile” wearing Heath Ledger-esque Joker masks, if the whole show hadn’t by that point creeped me out so badly. I was not creeped out so much by the 1989 Batman movie, and thus got a kick out of the use of “Beautiful Dreamer” in conjunction with Jack Nicholson’s Joker.) If we are judging them on how they do what they do, the Cavs deserved to knock the Bluecoats out of second place, no matter how much I’m rooting for the ‘Coats. But I don’t have to like it. And I didn’t. And the theater crowd, after having applauded at various levels for the previous 12 corps, was dead silent afterward. So I may not have been alone.

On the other hand, they DID get an emotional response out of me… so maybe they win this round after all.

[Ed. note: After the fact, I was alerted to the idea that in fact, the show was about war. I suppose if I’d known that going in, perhaps maybe I might have reacted a bit differently. So okay … I take this part back: I probably do want to see the “Mad World” show again. I will be interested to find out what I think of it.]


BLUECOATS have never been stronger overall. About five years ago, they got into fifth place and hinted that even better things were coming – and they’ve delivered. I never ever imagined Bluecoats as second-place material coming into quarterfinals (I mean, the Devils, Cadets and Cavaliers are in the house; not much room for sneakin’ in), but there they were, and deservingly. They do need to tone down the synth, seriously, both in volume level and in concept. I don’t think I’ve ever heard more haunting solo piano content in an evening of drum corps, even adjusting for the fact that electronics have been with us but three seasons. For my money, they can lose the plaintive synthesized cello lines for good and I’d be thrilled. There are ways of communicating that musical content with horns, really.

The show was very, very good; but something is yet missing from “Metropolis” that I can’t put my finger on, quite yet. I really hope they get it together for Finals and knock that dreadful Cavalier show back to third, or fourth.


And okay, I will admit that for the last few years, while the BLUE DEVILS have been beating everyone senseless, I’ve not been a fan. They hardly play jazz anymore. Heaven knows what they’re playing, half the time. I summarized their “Constantly Risking Absurdity” show as “Stupid Drum Corps Tricks” as soon as it was over, at Quarterfinals At The Movies (I have witnesses!). I mused that BD hadn’t connected with me since about 1994 (that glorious Chick Corea ballad “My Spanish Heart” ). They perform amazingly, at a ridiculously high level, and yet for years I’ve missed their 1988 and 1989 shows. Just get back and swing out!

I know: that labels me as a purist, or a stick-in-the-mud, or a traditionalist non-progressive, etc., etc. So be it: the Devils used to play big-band jazz like absolutely nobody in the activity, in fact like no one on grass in the whole world.

So this year? They play Kenton. Woo! And in spite of Steve Rondinaro’s warning that they were playing the experimental Stan Kenton from his later period – no they weren’t, really, were they? There was more than a hint of “La Suerte de los Tontos”, not just early but late, and clever references to it and other Kenton standards throughout. There was “Laura”, and breaking from the time-honored DCI tradition of playing just enough of an actual Tune to let you recognize it, but not nearly enough to let you enjoy it, the Devils played it, and played it, and played it. Woo! And there was much more (to my ear) of the classic Wayne Downey jazz brass voicings than I’ve heard lately, or maybe the material of the last few years hasn’t been the kind of material that would use those sounds to as-great advantage. But for most of that show, I was leaning forward in my seat and saying, “thank heaven for the Blue Devils.” Woo!

And then they had to spoil it with that sprinting DM at the end, didn’t they? Took all the air out of a show that should have had a movie theater on its feet, by emphasizing a strange, weird moment. (I blame the Cadets’ twilight zone show from a few years ago.)

Still, grudgingly, I’m forced to admit that they’re the best thing in drum corps right now.

But … is that the best thing for the activity? Taking, for a moment, the perspective of someone who was perhaps dragged to a show, or more specifically to THIS show, what is DCI delivering to them? The last seven corps of the night, with the exception of the Cadets and Crown, offered little other than … well, not so much “Big, Loud and Live” as “Strange, Dark and Is This What You Were Talking About When You Said ‘Like Band But Faster And Without Woodwinds’?”

POSTSCRIPT, 2/2/2011:

Michael Cesario has now been installed as the DCI Artistic Director. I listened to the two-part DCI Fieldpass podcast in which he was interviewed at some length about what changes might need to be made in judging, in show design and preparation, and what the devil a DCI Artistic Director actually does. I went away having chuckled as usual at the Michael Cesario schtick. (Two of my favorite Drum Major Academy stories have to do with the Michael Cesario schtick, but that’s for another time, if at all.) I’m very sure that I heard the DCI organization’s party line. “Y’know, what’s amazing is, everybody is on board with this!” Um… in the game of drum corps, the only thing everyone can agree on is how long the field is, from goal line to goal line – and then you ask the corps from Canada and you get a disagreement about THAT. But I came away from the podcasts with not nearly enough clue as to what was going to be changed, how it was going to be changed, or whether those changes were going to have any effect on the fact that the Devils win weird, and the only people who are going to beat them at this point will have to beat them at their own game. Aw crap.


February 2, 2011 - Posted by | drum corps, drum major, entertainment, marching band, music, Thom Hannum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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