Hellooooo Indianapolis! Time for the Drum Corps International Championship Finals!
Last time I caught the finals was Dallas, ’91, and so Saturday night I was so excited I almost peed on myself…and on my traveling companion!
Understand this…I have been all about marching percussion since I was knee high to a drumstick. When I was in the 8th grade, my band director, Mr. Bruce Collins, gave me the Spirit Award at the spring concert and said something like, “If I asked Trey to strap on a drum and march to Odessa, he would.”
I marched in ’82 with the Houston Nighthawks their first year. We were terrible but earnest. It was a great summer and I had a blast. In the years after, I went to about forty-hundred shows all over the country, from small shows in Dallas to huge ones in Denver, and what I’ve always loved most about drum and bugle corps are the balls. Music with balls, performers with balls. Even at it’s most delicate, drum corps are powerful groups that humble you with their sheer explosive force.
Lots has changed since I marched in 1982 and I don’t dig all of it, but even when a show doesn’t thrill me, even when a rule change makes me nutty, I count myself as a supporter. And no matter the show or music or design, the performers (no older than 21) have my total admiration and awe.
So let’s get to the getting. In the Finals, the corps hit the field in reverse order of scoring from the semi-finals; lowest scoring performing first and highest scoring performing last. These are my notes, moderately edited, from Saturday night.
1) Boston Crusaders. Visually disjointed. Huge stylized windmills a distraction. Music and visual don’t fit each other. What’s the story they’re trying to tell? Musicians shouldn’t be dancers.
2) The Academy. That’s how to match visual and music. Very cool Victorian/Gothic romance and zombie love affair. Incredibly good. Music good, dancing musicians (which I hate) well integrated. Mallet percussion sprouting skeleton masks and costumes while playing small xylophones on their rib cages hilariously clever. Stephen King meets DCI. Rock it, baby.
[Later, after seeing some love stories presented by other corps that just reeked of sweetness, I wondered if maybe, just maybe, The Academy was telling a fun zombie love story while at the same time mocking the syrupy love stories of the other drum corps.]
3) Crossmen. Ugh. Too much dancing by musicians, particularly horns. Going for low brass score, maybe? Horns spend as much time dancing as playing. Long strings of odd music with no horn or percussion held together by the percussion and electric piano in the pit. What’s the story? Visual disjointed from music.
4) Blue Stars. Another show I can’t figure out. Am I getting too stupid for DCI? Dancing horn players and props that are just there. Maybe quite obvious in the head of the show designer, but lost on me. A giant bed that lots of people roll across and stand on but doesn’t seem to have any real focus. A woman in a boxy skirt bedazzled with rope light ran around, twirling either a lamp or an umbrella (hard to tell which as they had both) and sort of led the lovers chaotically all over the field. All the musicians, at one point or another, were laying down. Music hard to follow.
[Later I checked their website and the show is called ‘Le Reve,’ French for the dream. Now it begins to make a little sense, I guess, but I don’t think someone should have to check a website and get notes to be able to understand what’s going on on the field.]
Thus far…all the shows except The Academy…sound and look exactly the same and are equally murky in terms of storytelling. The designers either need to drink way more, or way less, whiskey.
5) Phantom Regiment. Such an incredible horn line, so beautifully balanced and perfectly in tune. Why sacrifice that at the altar of dancing horn players? Musicians shouldn’t put their horns or drums down to dance. First half of their show just like others, second half damned good…regular Phantom…music not dancing.
6) Blue Knights. More random props? Don’t add to the show. Music with no melody. Musicians putting their instruments down and dancing. Mirrors on field reflect stadium lights into eyes of audience. Yeah, good call that one.
Lady behind me, former performer, says most of the show designers roughly the same age. Not sure I believe that, but so far most of the shows feel and look roughly the same…like there’s only one designer in all of DCI-dom.
Can’t hear the recorded voice-overs hardly at all (yeah, yeah, I know…voice-overs with bits of story narrative in a drum and bugle corps…welcome to one of the rule changes I hate).
7) The Cadets. Uh…mannequins? A 12-ft tall birthday cake-shaped stone pedestal thing? A violin? In a drum and bugle corps? But…finally…music with balls and melody. Power and adrenaline. Aggressive percussion. More marching than dancing. Strange story line. Are those rock people? Coming to life? Wait…they’re back to stone now. Uh…come to life long enough to change poses and nothing else? Not sure what that particular bit of odd theatricality is about but the horns horned and the percussion banged and that rox my balls.
8) The Cavaliers. Another random string of starting positions for the performers. They’re dribbled all over the field like a damned Jackson Pollock painting. No one carrying instruments or even their hats. Hate that. Gimme a more traditional opening. Big props that help tell the story…political words…revolution…propaganda. Hell yeah on this show! Cavs still one of the big dogs. Get off the porch and howl, boys! That’s how to match visual and music, storyline and music. Best show of night so far. Black and white uniforms when it was political propaganda, color later when the propaganda became endless ads…the ultimate in propaganda. Brilliant show! Music with BIG balls (thanks, Bon).
9) Santa Clara Vanguard. Again, everybody laying down sans instruments. It’s like freakin’ Jonestown up in here, corps(es) everywhere. Get it? Corps(es). That’s funny stuff. Yeah, yeah, stole it straight from The Academy show. An opening I don’t care for…soft and squishy…SCV always fabulous. Combined visual with music. Damned good. Story line not at all murky or hidden. Take a lesson, youngsters, that’s how you do it. If you can’t howl, don’t even get off the porch. SCV music with balls and punch.
10) Carolina Crown. OMFG. Incredibly good. Musicians dancing (grrr) but played balls out! Show doesn’t look like the others. Great story line, mixed music and visual perfectly. Troopers territory…American west. Great visual depiction of battle and hardship of moving west. Giant stage coach prop, huge, but used as platform for both color guard and story line. Fabulous show!
11) The Blue Devils. Damn, these ain’t your daddy’s Blue Devils. Odd and disjointed. 12 huge box trusses on wheels that took two or three people to move. Moved them around, spun them around to see musicians sitting on a bench. Covered in antique-looking pieces of world maps. Doing nothing but sitting on field. Think story is coming to America…seek a better life? Not really sure. A man’s face on the back of color guard costumes (not even really uniforms anymore) but can’t tell who it is. Too much dancing. Put some air through the damned horn and some blood on the drumheads!
[Later…checked their website and the show was a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Okay, that seems to fit, but again, I don’t like having to go elsewhere to figure out what the show is. Even the video at the website explaining the story was dance-oriented. Dancers dancing along a wall and on the handrails. Ugh. I’m guessing the face on the costumes was Shakespeare…hard to tell from where I was sitting.]
Why are so many damn corps not playing a single note by horns or percussion until two minutes into the show? I don’t want to hear synthesized ethereal sound patches that are apropos of exactly nothing.
12) Bluecoats. This is the worst show I have ever seen since I started watching in 1982. Music feels completely random and it has squat to do with the visual. Wait…what’s the visual? Oh, right, random pink skater half-pipes. Musicians sliding down them…again and again and again. Hanging off them again…and again…and again. Uniforms white jeans and t-shirts and yellow jeans and t-shirts. Classy bit, that. Memories of the Velvet Knights, eh, boys? Musicianship passable…at least when they played. Too much damned musician dancing again. 24 speakers on field? Wassa matta? Can’t hear the soloists? ‘Cause they spend their time learning to dance rather than woodshedding their playing. Maybe I’m an idiot but I simply do not understand what they’re trying to do.
Cut to Sunday night, thinking about the Finals and the notes I made during the Finals.
I realize I’m old school DCI from way back, and I know changes aren’t permanent, but change is (nods to the Canada Boys all around) and that’s all fine, I’m just not sure I’m up for some of these particular changes.
A violin on the field, Cadets? Uncool. Doubly so since she played about four notes and then was one of your frozen statues for 95% of the show.
I don’t understand putting a microphone in front of everything. I want to hear what the musician can do; can they blow? Can they blow in tune? With carriage and tone? If they can’t and they need a mic, maybe they belong in a concert hall, not on a field. I can’t even imagine the Spirit of Atlanta or Santa Clara hornlines from the 80s or the Cavs in the early 2000s needing a mic for their soloists.
And I just don’t understand all the damned dancing. It started in the late 80s with color guards that wanted to do something other than sweep the sky…sweep the ground (flags) and throw throw throw (rifles), and that was all fine, but now everyone is dancing and the marching fundamentals have gone to shit.
Lines were a disaster, diagonals were horrific…though I believe I began to understand why the show designers had performers do their own thing and run around the field…easier to hide bad marching.
In those cases, and there were corps that had great marching, it felt like nothing more than chaos theory hoping for a good visual score.
Lastly, the emoting. Music is emotion. Music is heartfelt and the absolute essence of emotion and spirit and human soul. So don’t stage everything! I love to see musicians moved by the music, but if everyone in a section is emoting the exact same way at the exact same moment, it’s not real. It’s staged in hopes of a better visual score.
The Bluecoates soloist, who did a decent job, did not suddenly take that opportunity to wink into the camera and swagger away, overcome by how well he’d played. Nor was he the only performer who played to the cameras. It just comes off as phony as fake tits.
Now, having written all that and sounding like that old guy down the block who screams all day: “Get off my lawn, fuckers!” I absolutely love drum corps, even the crap I hate and think should be in the dustbin of bad ideas (New Coke, anyone?). I will always attend, I will always donate money, and I will always admire every performer on the field for their incredible ability and hard work and dedication (the accoutrements have changed, but those attributes are exactly the same as when I marched), but I will continue to hold DCI’s feet to the fire when they fuck it up, or when a corps as a whole fucks it up, or when a designer takes the easy and trendy way out.
Come on…seriously…a violin?