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Monday, August 10, 2015

Nobody's Home

On Saturday of Labor Day weekend, College Gameday returns to us from Arlington, TX, the site of the Alabama-Wisconsin game in the Advocare Cowboys Classic. Of the top-flight games the premier college football show could have chosen from in Week 1 - and admittedly, there aren't many, especially not on Saturday itself - quite a few take place at neutral sites.

In the past few years, I've heard quite the pushback to what's viewed as an increased emphasis on neutral site games. They have grown increasingly lucrative for participating teams, they offer an opportunity to play major intersectional matchups without having to give up a home-and-home, and they allow major stadiums like AT&T Stadium in Dallas and NRG Stadium in Houston to get in on the college football action. But critics of these in-season de-facto bowl games hate the idea of taking those games off of a college campus to a sterile, foreign pro football environment with no tie to either school.

This has never been an issue for me, but then, I'm a USF alum. I attended all of my home games as a student in an NFL stadium, and even after graduating, several of the away games I've been able to go to - two bowl games in Charlotte and a Temple game at Lincoln Financial Field - have been in NFL stadiums. My common refrain has been that neutral site games are more likely to be two band affairs. It sounded right; after all, what are most of these neutral site games but in-season bowl games, or classics, both occasions where it's rare not to see both bands present. But were my suspicions rooted in fact, or did it just sound good? Certainly Band on the Road would hold the answer.

The first thing I realized is that for such ado, there are actually relatively few neutral site games that pit Power 5 conference teams (and I'm including Notre Dame and BYU here) against one another. Some are annual rivalry games, like Texas-Oklahoma and Florida-Georgia. A third fall in the first week, in a border war in the Carolinas and kickoff games in indoor stadiums in Atlanta, Houston, and Arlington. The remaining few are scattered throughout the schedule at other NFL stadiums or, in the case of Notre Dame-Boston College at Fenway, a baseball stadium. The fear of their takeover is much overstated, but for programs like Alabama that seem to find themselves in one each year, that may mean little. But of the dozen games mentioned, only two have a road band ruled out by publicly stated band schedule: Wisconsin's Badger Band won't make the trip to the Metroplex for College Gameday, and BYU won't be headed to Kansas City to play Mizzou. All others are either confirmed or plausible based on distance, including a few of the longest trips: Arizona State to Houston, Notre Dame to Boston, and Louisville to Atlanta. The last is particularly notable because an Atlanta trip has the potential to fall within Louisville's conference slate by way of Georgia Tech, and yet I can vouch firsthand that the Marching Cards didn't make a shorter conference trip last fall to Clemson. It would seem, then, that the lure is that of the big game.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Through Youthful Eyes

These go to 11.
When it comes to uniforms - primarily sports, but to a lesser extent, band/corps - I sit pretty squarely in the middle of the traditional vs. innovative spectrum. I have a lot of love for traditional unis, but can appreciate a new school design when done properly. But when it comes to drum corps and electronics, I remain pretty solidly old school and pro acoustic instrumentation. It wasn't until yesterday I realized the two are related.

The common refrain on newer, flashier uniforms is that they're for the recruits; that is, they hold appeal for younger folks, and may attract talent to the program. Yesterday, my four year old daughter and I were watching Blue Devils practice. We were up in the press box, and she's mostly playing around, paying little attention to the corps. But then they hit the part of their show where it's all electronics. She perked up. She got up and came to see what was going on. That sound - one that sounded more like what she hears on the radio and less like the marching bands she knew we were there to see, caught her interest. Flashy uniforms and amps - they're for the kids.


I don't see how you can hate from
outside the club. You can't even get in!
I'm going to let you, dear reader, in on a dirty little not-so-secret: For all of my excitement about NightBEAT taking place in my virtual backyard, I didn't actually attend. At least, not in the manner one typically attends a drum corps show. We're in the middle of a move, so a lot of our money and time is tied up with that. But because the show was still close, my daughter and I still made the short trip west to soak it all in.

Our first stop was Blue Devils' housing site. Because I've typically made the trip to whatever town - usually Charlotte - just in time for the show itself, I had never attended corps rehearsal on site before. If the show returns to Winston, it's certainly something I'll make time for, perhaps hitting a few more sites as well. After grabbing a bite to eat, it was off to the lot, where my daughter's fascination (both with the drums and the dirt where we happened to sit down) and my own (less so with the dirt) kept us by the Cadets' drumline most of the time. We did see the Commandant's Own practicing basics for a bit, and spent some time with Madison's drumline, pit, and guard before calling it a night.

While we never made it in the gates, I saw all I needed to to bolster my case for a return to Winston. The drum corps tailgating I've often done and spoken about was a reality - not in mass quantities, but I saw quite a few groups out there - folks with Wake Forest chairs, possibly returning to their usual spots, Phi Mu Alpha fraternity men, and other groups were treating a college stadium as though it were, well, a college stadium. My estimation from before on the proximity to various colleges was spot on, with college I hadn't even considered. The difference in styles led me to neglect to mention Greensboro's own North Carolina A&T, but I saw a contingent from the Blue and Gold Marching Machine watching the Cadets. James Madison was out in force as well; I hadn't considered them because they're closer to the show in Salem, VA, but because this is a Tour of Champions event, if you want to see all of the heavy hitters in one place, this is the trip.

The morning after report seems to be that everyone had a great time, the venue was excellent, and Carolina Crown set yet another attendance record. My position on the matter is clear, but I'd like to think the evidence from last night keeps drum corps in some capacity in Winston.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Case for Winston

It's the morning of NightBEAT 2015 at BB&T Field at Wake Forest, and before a step is taken or a note is sounded, I'm making a statement: It needs to come back.

That's easy for me to say. I live in Greensboro, a mere half hour from Winston-Salem, but closer to an hour and a half from NightBEAT's usual Charlotte home - longer the years it was in Rock Hill. But my own biases aside, there are a few other reasons a show in Winston-Salem makes good sense.

Location - Winston-Salem makes sense as a location both for what it's near and what it's not. While a move from Charlotte is a move away from the most populous city in the Carolinas, the trip is manageable for the five largest cities in NC - including Charlotte, and the three largest metros: Charlotte, the Triad, and the Triangle. Winston-Salem is closer than Charlotte to college bands at Appalachian State, Duke, UNC, NC State, ECU, and of course the host campus, Wake Forest. There's also a critical mass of band students right down the road at UNCG attending Summer Music Camp right up until the weekend of NightBEAT. And while it makes for a longer trip for the South Carolina schools and metros, they also have the Southeastern Regional in Atlanta within arm's reach. Stop being so greedy.

Hosts - While high school bands are key among drum corps attendees, most World Class marchers are college-aged and often college marching band members. Having a college band as a production partner makes good sense, and they have in Wake Forest and SOTOGAB something they've not had in Charlotte or Rock Hill. In Charlotte, a partnership may form with the brand new band at UNC Charlotte, but Wake Forest is already well established, and I've seen how their band and staff have shared in the effort of promoting NightBEAT. It's also in their house, which is not likely to be the case in Charlotte for UNC Charlotte, as I don't anticipate the show moving to Jerry Richardson Stadium from American Legion Memorial. Wake Forest's conference affiliation also means there's a well-worn path from UNC, NC State, Duke, Clemson, and Virginia Tech.

By no means am I suggesting Carolina Crown abandon Charlotte. The corps was founded there, and still calls the metro area home. For a corps that bears the name "Carolina" - neither north nor south - a centrally located show makes sense. But if NightBEAT sees fit to rotate, Winston-Salem makes as much sense as anywhere. For that matter, if Crown returns to an early season show as it once had in FirstBEAT and CrownBEAT, Wake Forest as a location is a no-brainer. Here's hoping they feel that way after the experience up to and including today.

DCI returns to the Triad for the first time in over a decade today. Here's hoping it doesn't take that long for a return engagement.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Band on the Road Year 5

(Want less talk, more database? Here you go.)

As the 2015 season approaches, we're beginning the 5th edition of the Band on the Road project. I began the database - and with it the Band on the Road Game of the Week - back in 2011, and continue to believe it is the most comprehensive database of its kind. For the unfamiliar, the premise is simple: The project chronicles marching band road trips over the course of a football season. It begins a complete as can be by my own work, digging through the schedules of each marching band to determine road games, and continues as it has since the first year: through the work of those who seek to add their own knowledge to the database.

For those who have followed for years, you'll notice an evolution to the database. What were once six power conferences became five, leading me to stop including my own American Athletic Conference. I've changed how I include HBCUs: In the beginning, I stuck with the Division I schools - the MEAC, SWAC, and Tennessee State. I've since made the shift to including all of the classics instead, regardless of division.

The big changes this year is that what was once "The Big List" is now in calendar format, including each school's full schedule and color coding Band on the Road games. In doing such, I used the "Confirmed" vs. "Unconfirmed" terminology for road games and games with visitors, as well as neutral site trips. As the names suggest, confirmed games are verified in some way, either through the band's own website or information from someone with the knowledge. The unconfirmed games are more than just a guess, however; at this point we have four previous years of data to call upon when offering an informed opinion about a band's travel. 

Because of the new calendar format, I've hidden the week-by-week lists for now. I may later see a use for them, but at this point, the database may be condensed from here on out into a single page. The format it's in now actually mirrors notes that I've kept for myself throughout the process, using FBSchedules' helmet schedules, and it's hopefully more user friendly for consumers and co-contributors alike. 

As it's been each year, this is the point where I release it into the more-than-capable hands of y'all. If there are any BOTR games that you know about, feel free to update!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Beer Review - 3rd Wave Sour Lime

It seems that summer - specifically the July 4th holiday weekend - brings beer reviews, as it did last year. Visiting family in Ocean City, MD, my transpeninsular two-steppimg has taken me to a few of the breweries I'm the area, and my most recent trip took me to Delmar's 3rd Wave Brewing Company.

I'll spare you my romanticization of a city that straddles the Transpeninsular Line and stick with the trip to 3rd Wave with my mother-in-law. I had looked up Delaware breweries and came across 3rd Wave, which is reasonably new to the landscape. I made plans to head out that way and sample their wares.

A quick note on my drinking habits: I'm a habitual trier. My stomping ground is that of the flight, of the seasonal sampler, of the never-order-the-same-beer-twice. Put another way: I have commitment issues. My sister-in-law got me a growler for Christmas a year and a half ago that has yet to be used, not because I don't love beer, but because a growler is quite the commitment.

Then I met 3rd Wave's Sour Lime Saison.

I entered with my usual MO: I got a four beer flight, which yielded a no-thanks, a couple of alrights, and, in the Sour Lime, an I'd-like-to-get-to-know-you-better. I got a pint of a fifth brew entirely, but when my mother-in-law offered a gift, I went all in and got a growler of the Sour Lime. I have since finished said growler (not in one sitting, but it was a thought) and am trying to figure out how best to get back to Delmar for another fill.

Its taste? It's what Bud Light Lime should aspire to when it grows up.

Believe it or not, that's high praise. Bud Light Lime is what I've dubbed a white shoe beverage - it's only appropriate between about Easter and Labor Day. And while "Macro We Stand" is the most to-hell-with-the-little-guy (and thus, American?) slogan ever, I'm not too much of a beer snob to kick it with an enjoyable major label beer. The Sour Lime might just be the perfect summer brew, but unlike the Bud Light Lime, I'd gladly enjoy this anytime. If you find yourself in the environs of the Delmarva peninsula and the opportunity presents itself, head to 3rd Wave and treat yourself.

Friday, July 3, 2015

One High Step for Man...

The news broke yesterday morning and sent ripples through the band world: All MEAC football games broadcast on ESPN3 will include the halftime show in its entirety.

A look at the TV tag here will show you all sorts of wishes and dreams of mine related to televising halftime shows. While it's one conference on an online network, this may be the most progress we've seen outside of show Notre Dame halftimes. Many in the band world can't help but wonder: What could be next?

First, I've long been critical of the Worldwide Leader's band coverage, or more accurately, lack thereof, so here, I have to give credit where credit is due. ESPN has taken a step in the right direction. I must acknowledge that ESPN is in the business of making money, so while the move isn't solely altruistic, that's even better in a lot of ways: It means that they see the inclusion of halftime shows as profitable.

Consider this: ESPN has a partnership with the MEAC - and the SWAC, for that matter - that includes the early season MEAC-SWAC Challenge and the postseason Celebration Bowl, which will serve as the black college football national championship. To truly sell those events, it's in the network's best interest to draw attention to those conferences' games throughout the regular season. Ironically, it's increasingly difficult for even non Power Five teams to get time of day on the family of networks, so they've really got to think outside the box to bring eyeballs to a conference that tends to perform towards the bottom of the FCS. By showing halftime, they not only add value to the broadcast, they also will likely bring in viewers who would not have otherwise tuned into a MEAC game on ESPN3. It is for those reasons I make the not-so-bold prediction that a similar announcement could follow for the SWAC. And as much as I'd like to see this extend to all conferences, I'm not sure adding halftime shows is seen as being as valuable for the major conferences. Still, because an ESPN3 broadcast only really requires them to keep a high angle camera on (though as the offering evolves, I hope the put more work into it), it could be feasible for it to extend throughout that platform.

Regardless of how it progresses, we just learned of a major step in the right direction towards the "80 minutes" ideal.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

That Ship has Sailed... Or Has It?

In less than a half hour, the calendar rolls over into July, and with it, the final pegs of realignment related to college football at the FBS level fall into place. Navy football will join the American Athletic Conference, completing the conference and leading to the inaugural conference championship game at the end of the season. Navy will compete in the Western division; while it's the geographical odd school out, I suppose if anyone should be misaligned, it should be the one that has their own planes. Selfishly, given my ties to Maryland, I look forward to USF playing in Annapolis with some frequency, though I'll miss this year's match - it takes place on Halloween and I have young kids. Further, it's sandwiched in between Eagles at Panthers and USF at East Carolina, both of which I'll be attending, making it an even tougher sell.

A few states south, Charlotte will be taking the step up into FBS as a full member of Conference USA. Interestingly enough, I last knew them as conferencemates in C-USA during my time at USF. Just as importantly, the 49ers will be fielding a marching band for the first time, a move intentionally delayed for FBS from their start as a program two seasons ago. The Pride of Niner Nation will hold their first band camp just over two months from now, stepping off in September as the Niners start their home slate.

With those two pieces falling into place, realignment has cooled down... or has it? Oklahoma president David Boren recently spoke up about the potential for the Big 12 to add two teams to return to 12, and naturally, as offseason frenzies go, everyone started dusting off their resumes. The American, left out in the cold from the power conferences with the latest round of realignment, seems the most anxious, with Memphis, UConn, Cincinnati, USF, and C. Florida all being names batted around, along with western powers like BYU and Boise State. We may soon learn if the carousel is up for another ride.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Earning their Stripes

A reminder from the Greensboro Coliseum that college
basketball is a religion.
The content here has always been simultaneously expansive and restrictive. The areas I cover, sports and marching/athletic music, provide a broad palette to discuss, and yet I have always intentionally restricted the topics here to those and directly related areas. It is for that reason that you've not heard me speak of Triad Stage, our local professional theater here in Greensboro, where my wife and I have been season pass holders for the better part of our decade here. Thankfully, through their current production of Common Enemy, I have occasion to speak on a place I love and an excellent performance that I recommend all within reach attend.

Written and directed by Triad Stage co-founder and artistic director Preston Lane, Common Enemy interprets Henrik Ibsen's Enemy of the People through the lens of North Carolina college basketball. The setting is the fictitious Zebulon College, a liberal arts institution in Hawboro, NC (NC is home to a Zebulon, a Haw River, and a host of 'boros); the time is the theater-nebulous "present day", though I suspect in the future that will need to be updated to the 2010s, a time where themes like Edward Snowden and college athletics are as polarizing as Duke-Carolina, liberal-conservative, and at Zebulon, home of the Zebras, black and white. Period pieces are often thought of as another period; it's odd to think that someday a dramaturg will be researching early 21st century North Carolina, but the setting is so masterfully played out that it has to be born of this soil.

The play follows the Zebulon Zebras as they compete in, and ultimately win, the Pioneer Conference tournament, sending them to the Big Dance for the first time in the institution's short stint in Division I. We meet their star player, athletic director, college president, and chair of the Board of Trustees, all gearing up for a journey with implications for more than just the athletic program. The added attention could differentiate Zebulon from other colleges of a similar profile in a time in higher education where the grab for scarce resources threatens institutions of various types. Many faculty are on board as well, but as some have seen first hand, there is often a tenuous relationship between college athletics and the institutions that support them. When a professor's research stands to derail everything, battle lines are drawn: Friend or foe, local or outsider, for us or again' us.

I work in higher education, and of course I follow sports, especially college sports, closely. I love college sports like I love scrapple - it's delicious, so long as I don't think too hard of what it's made of. Common Enemy addresses themes like payment of student athletes, students advancing academically on athletic prowess and little else, and systems that are in place to shield transgressions - minor and major alike - lest they threaten the almighty sport. Without the love - sometimes, even with it - it's hard not to make a case for shutting the whole thing down. Whether that's seen as rational or insane depends largely on the lens through which you view it.

The detail that ties this piece to the land is impeccable, but I wouldn't expect any less from North Carolina native Preston Lane, or from Triad Stage, a theater that among its core values lists "A Southern Voice." The description in the program places Hawboro precisely - along the Haw River on North Carolina's piedmont - and outlines what sort of BBQ (Lexington, if you're wondering) the joint in one of the scenes serves. Each character has his or her Duke-Carolina allegiance, and in one impassioned monologue, a native North Carolinian outlines the family ties and life experiences that make this more than just a game. The accents are distinct, and the relationships, born of convenience or of generations, are authentic. And while the themes are universal, perhaps my only criticism of this piece, should it go national - and I sincerely hope it does - is how it would play before audiences who, as one character is constantly reminded, "ain't from 'round here."

Common Enemy continues at Triad Stage through June 28. If this is at all within reach for you, treat yourself to an unforgettable night of live theater.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Abandon All Hope

Every year, Carolina Crown holds their preview before leaving for tour at their spring training site, Gardner-Webb University. Every year to this point, I'd thought the two and a half hour drive was a bit much to travel for one corps and one show.

This year, I made the trip.

It was a combo of sorts: My daughter's been itching to go camping. We have a KOA membership, and their Spartanburg/Gaffney campground is a half hour from Boiling Springs and also close to some friends of mine. So with that justification in hand, we folded the preview show into a great weekend.

The preview day started with a friends and family luncheon at the Gardner-Webb student center. They've got a beautiful campus, and naturally the higher ed nerd in me had to poke around a bit. We spent a bit of time on campus before heading over to the stadium, catching drumline and pit warmups before the show began.

As it's still the preseason, this was the earliest in any corps run I've seen them. It was strange hearing bumps in Crown's perennially perfect brass, but I was left with no doubt they'd iron those out. The show, Inferno, was as dark as I've ever seen Crown. As I quipped during the show, this isn't a Spirit of Disney award winner, unless we're talking the Night on Bald Mountain scene from Fantasia. It felt like a heel turn; I don't know that that's a bad thing, but it will take some getting used to coming from this corps. Still, their Ode to Joy ending felt like a drawn out Picardy third in an otherwise minor show.

I was particularly excited that Verdi's Dies Irae was a part of this show, as it's a piece I've played before. The runs will be sweet once the brass is in mid-season form, though I was hoping the trumpet trio would be included. there's some cool visual as well, including all of the brass being enshrouded in gossamer.

Ever since Crown's championship season and the #purplepantsband uniform change, the anticipation of the coming year's uniforms has been a story unto itself. The style has remained the same since that season, but the pants color and accents and accoutrements have changed with each season. While it's admittedly "get off my lawn"ish, I long for the days of the Cream Team. While I think this year's set goes well with the show theme, I'm also not the biggest fan of annual uniform changes, so unless they're going back cream, it's a story that doesn't hold my interest too heavily.

Between Crown's preview showand the DCI dress rehearsal available for free viewing online featuring the Troopers and Madison Scouts, my appetite is sufficiently whetted for the coming season. Assuming that Golden State puts away the NBA Finals in a few short minutes, as seems likely, there'll be a layoff of less than a day between the end of the NBA and the start of DCI. If we can get a bridge on the other side between DCI and college football, we'd be all set.
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