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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Go Bulls!

I've got two alma maters--UMBC and USF. While checking out the athletic site for UMBC, I saw something that had me do a double take--it spoke of how "...Bulls shine in Men's Soccer's 4-2 opening victory" Turns out we've got a freshman on the soccer team named Andrew Bulls. So no matter which team I'm following, Go Bulls!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Showdown in B-Town

I came to the following epiphany not long ago: The difference between serious bloggers and hobby guys like me is that the serious guys will capture an event while it's still current, while the rest of us will miss the opportunity to catch the real news of it. That said, a week later, here's my final post on the DCI World Championships.

The journey began for Megan and I on Tuesday night, when we began our drive from Greensboro, NC to Bloomington. Our trip included a stop at Cumberland Gap National Park (we're national park fans and Passport Stamp collectors) on the way there, as well as a stop in Lexington, KY to catch up with some friends on the way back. We traveled through Louisville, KY, which seemed to be a neat city (despite being the natural habitat of toothed birds) and through southern Indiana, which we discovered was a real hole, en route to our final destination. We packed a grill and a cooler with the intent of tailgating at the venue; we would soon come to realize, both with the insane stadium prices and the sizable gap between the open class corps and world class corps on the days where they shared the field, that this decision was not only fundamentally sound, but financially sound as well. On Thursday we poked around IU's campus for a bit (I work in higher ed and can't help myself) before the show began, and late at night, when we finally made it back to Indianapolis, where we were staying, we checked out the surrounding downtown as well.

On with the show! My earlier notes dump said probably about all I will say about the corps who missed Finals night. And to the open class fans out there--I'm sorry. While we had the FANtastic 5 ticket package and the ability to attend open class semis and finals, a planned sleepin after travel on Friday and an alarm clock malfunction on Saturday meant that we missed all but the top of the order each day. Congratulations to the Vanguard Cadets, part of one of my favorite organizations, the 2008 Open Class Champions. And to Jersey Surf--much love to the mid-Atlantic. Be seeing you real soon in world class.

There were a few exhibition we saw over the weekend that were stellar in their own right. The Cavaliers Anniversary Corps performed on Friday night after semifinal competition concluded to commemorate the organization's 60th anniversary. They had Cavies alumni from each decade of their existence and truly paid tribute to their longstanding organization. Also in exhibition, on finals night, was The Commandant's Own Marine Drum and Bugle Corps. I had seen them before (they did NightBEAT last year) but I was no less impressed.

Finals night competition began with the Madison Scouts. As I mentioned before, I'm not in love with their new uniforms, but that's neither here nor there. Their show, La Noche de la Iguana, was Latin based, and musically, they cooked it pretty well. I was half expecting a welcome intrusion of the hits from MalagueƱa (from the corps that brought you A Drum Corps Fan's Dream/Part Dos). The men of Madison certainly had their swagger, but they weren't nearly as clean as they needed to be.

The Glassmen's Kar-ne-vel (no points for spelling) was one of many storytelling shows this year - this one was a young girl at the carnival. It was pretty well done, largely guard and prop driven (cabinets-on-wheels were part of the scenery/props). This was the first show I saw four times, as I has seen them at NightBEAT as well. I'm still not much of a fan of the hundreds of balloons they must have released into the atmosphere over their entire tour this summer.

We made acquaintance of a few of the folks sitting around us. To our right were two women who we saw each day (also Fan5 ticketholders, it seems). On finals night, we had a gentleman sitting behind us who was a 1948 Cadets alum. We struck up many a conversation over the evening, and his prevailing themes were how things have changed and "my kingdom for a melody!" I told him to hold on tight when Crown came around if it was melody he sought. I didn't have the heart to ask him outright what he thought of the current direction of his former corps, but he did give praise where praise was due: "Garfield's always done a mean company front."

The Boston Crusaders had the unenviable position of having their Neocosmos program, largely a space theme, juxtaposed--usually quite closely--with Crossmen's Planet X all season. BAC pulled away in the end, landing a 10th billing on finals night while the XMen sat just outside the top 12. The Crusaders also took the "Neo" portion of Neocosmos to heart, borrowing from The Matrix. And the way they presented and remixed Also Sprach Zarathustra was pretty facemelting. Speaking of which, I enjoy how some corps--and I don't know if it's their doing, Brandt Crocker's, or a combination thereof, have started their performances early just so they can salute as the corps plays and hit the first big hit right after the corps announcement.

I wasn't impressed at all by the Blue Knights' finals performance, if I may be frank. Megan and I were both convinced that Knight Reign was going to fall after that performance, possibly to the 12th place spot. Again with melody (because while it wasn't the only thing on my radar, I agree with the man about what I appreciate) however, BK really did crank Amazing Grace.

We bought the souvenir yearbook program while there. Megan raiseda n interesting point:Each of the photos of thecorps in it come from last season. By the end of the season, couldn't they have photographed earlier shows in the season for inclusion?

No doping allegations here, but Le Tour: Every Second Counts certainly propelled the Blue Stars into the top 12 with a bullet! It was based on the Tour de France and featured bicycle wheels as guard equipment, bike imagery in the drill, a mural of bikers on the let's-hide-our-guard-equipment shields, and an actual biker, complete with yellow jersey, to cap the entire performance. I also failed to notice before (I'll give them more points in my mental GE score) that they also did work all by French composers. I had earlier dismissed it as a bicycle answer to Crown's Triple Crown, but it was still well done.

Santa Clara Vanguard's show was 3hree (Mind-Body-Soul), which I mentally pronounce "Three-hree", not unlike pop group 5ive. I have to be honest, Vanguard is one of my favorite corps, but I find it quite hard to watch the entirety of their show because I can never take my eyes off of the cymbal line. Luckily watching for 3hree consecutive nights gives me the opportunity take it all in, and as always, it was extremely well executed. While I may otherwise be baffled at their placement, this year's field was so strong that I've really got no complaints.

Bluecoats put the Bloo in Bloomington and overtook SCV on the final night of competition, and again, I can't be mad because the Coats' show, The Knockout, was one of the night's big crowd--and Curtis--pleasers. The boxing themed show borrowed heavily from Rocky, and I was most intrigued by their brass rendition of Going the Distance, which hip hop heads will recognize as the piece sampled for Notorious B.I.G. et al.'s Victory, as well as the bare-naked brass soli that launched into the singing of Simon and Garfunkel's "...but the boxer still remains" lyric from The Boxer.

The Cadets--what is it Jay-Z said on one of the tracks of he and Linkin Park's Collision Course? "You're wasting your talent, Randy!" The Cadets are an extremely talented group of performers, and for that matter their skipper George Hopkins is extremely talented in putting a show together. It's just that these shows, in my humble opinion, are not something I'd like to see performed on a football field. The premise of ...And the Pursuit of Happiness was a PBS radio interview on WCDT, and in my opinion it would have been perfect for such. But this show seemed even more contrived than last year's This I Believe, which at least had a clear logical drum corps tie-in and told a more complete story. Still, I can't fault the corps, who marched and played their asses off. Here's hoping that the return to Holy Name next year brings something I can appreciate more.

In related news, I noticed that The Cadets' logo is kind of a marching version of the Heisman trophy. Check 'em both out. You'll see what I mean.

And thus completes the also-rans. This isn't meant as a slight to any of the other corps, but from the moment in Orlando when Crown first surpassed Cadets, it became clear that the four remaining corps really had something special, and I truly believe that in the right year, any of the following corps could have challenged for the #1 spot.

Carolina Crown's Finis was an eargasm the likes of which I still can't let go. In fact, I went so far as to purchase the audio performance download of the semifinal performance for about 500% what I typically pay for mp3s just to feed the demon. The show, to me, was genius, full of recognizable pieces expertly played, particularly by Crown's brassline and incorporating endings both musically and with the drill, which paid tribute to the activity as a whole by incorporating endings used throughout history. I realized I'm biased as a Crown fan, but I loved that show, and it was clear the audience did too. Still, again, in this field, I don't begrudge its 4th place finish, which, might I add, was the highest score a 4th place corps had ever achieved.

The Cavaliers unleashed with their show Samurai which featured an on-field killing (although far from the only one) and some intricacies in drill and guard that were just badass. One of my favorite moments was a Matrixesque dodge executed by a horn avoiding the swipe of the samurai at the end of the show.

Blue Devils' Constantly Risking Absurdity was exactly that. This show suffered only two defeats all season, one at the East regional in Allentown and the other on Finals night. After having taken in each of the top shows at least three times, however, I'm convinced that if each were firing on all cylinders each night, there's no way they would not have constantly beaten up on one another. BD's concept was based upon a poem and was quite well done, as one would expect from the Devs.

And last but far from least, Phantom Regiment's Spartacus--wow. This one I can actually summarize because it truly told a story. The action begins from the moment the first corps member takes the field. There is a clear delineation between the Empire, portrayed by the instrumentalists and drum majors, and the slaves, portrayed by the guard. The coming of the emperor (head drum major) is announced by herald trumpets, and slaves push him out on the drum major podium. He is followed by his army (hornline) goosestepping onto the field. Lines are clearly drawn as we see the mistreatment of the slaves. The emperor heartily grips one of his generals (assistant drum majors) and turns to greet the other, only to be snubbed.

Mind you, this all has taken place before the first note is ever played.

A gladiator battle ensues in which the slave Spartacus is forced to kill another. During the ballad, Spartacus dances sweetly with his love, Phrygia (insert modal joke here). A general, angered by this expression, marches from the back of the field and slits the throat of Spartacus' love before tossing her violently to the turf. A slave uprising ensues, with the guard forming a phalanx with their shields and spears. There is more bloodshed and eventually Spartacus is defeated by the hornline. Martyred, a shrine is erected midfield in his honor, honored even by the anguished assistant drum major (remember the snub earlier?) He announces, "I AM SPARTACUS!", a theme repeated by segments of the guard several times before the assistant drum major grabs a spear, leaps over guard equipment, and after a tutti "I AM SPARTACUS!" violently spears the emperor on the podium, climbs to the top, triumphantly rips the baton from the back of his jacket, and conducts the final measures of the show, the vanquished emperor at his feet. And merely telling the story says nothing to the excellence in music,drill and design. Because of how close everything was, I was watching the top 3 corps very closely and with bated breath. Their finals night performance was essentially flawless. It was a clear, overwhelming crowd favorite, and as we learned to an uproarious reaction when BD were announced as the second place corps, the judges agreed.

There was no way I could have asked for more in competition. The three days of quarters, semis, and finals yielded 2 different winners and 3 different second-place corps. The world champion Phantom Regiment entered Bloomington in 4th, and rose each night to 3rd, 2nd, and eventually champion. They bested BD by a mere 25 thousandths of a point.

I went all in and purchased the tickets for championships weekend with the belief it would be in Lucas Oil Stadium. Regardless of what the lure was though, I'm extremely glad I made it this year. Early on, Megan and I had discussed trying to make a regional each year, with the understanding that obviously we won't make it to championships each year. After finals night, however, even she, who mind you is only a band dork by association but is now a true corps fan, was asking "can we come back next year?"

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Notes Dump: DCI Quarterfinals

Part 2 of my who-knows-how-many-part recap of DCI Championship weekend. Out of responsibility to the blogosphere (and most of all, myself) I took the opportunity during DCI quarterfinals to take some notes with the intent of sharing. This was also when I allowed myself to take pictures, with the expectation that I'd get that out of my system so that I may give all the remaining corps my undivided attention during semis and finals. At this point I'll attempt to put into longerhand the notes I jotted down. If I don't have notes on a particular corps, that's the only thing it means--no disrespect is intended or implied.

The Academy, from Arizona, was one of only a handful of World Class corps I had not seen live before. While they didn't make it out of the first day, I was impressed with their sound output.

Pacific Crest was another corps I hadn't seen live before. Their 2008 program, Primality:The Rituals of Passion, featured a guard member as a drummer. Or was that a drummer as a guardie?

The Troopers were clearly the people's champ of the 1st set. People were to their feet at the mere sighting of America's Corps. Their showwas strong with a lot of the marching basics--gate and pinwheel turns reigned supreme.

I'm not 100% in love with Madison Scouts' new uniforms. That takes nothing away from their play, however. I noted them as the first hornline to truly scorch when facing away from the audience.

I got to see the Glassmen for the second time at quarters, the first having been in Charlotte at NightBEAT. Solid show, but they continued to anger the environmentalist in me by letting balloons go.

The Blue Stars' cycling themed "Le Tour" was another crowd pleaser. I enjoyed the show, but call me cynical, it read to me much as a bike version of Triple Crown, Carolina Crown's program from last year.

The Bluecoats' hornline really impressed me with a horn riff during which they left themselves completely naked and exposed and came out clean. This was immediately followed by... singing?

Ah, The Cadets... Narration be damned, their saving grace has always been that when it comes down to it, they really are that damn good at what they do. But this year, were they, even at their finest, demonstrably better than some of the other corps?

My notes for Phantom Regiment, the eventual champion who put on a "Spartacus" show, simply read "Bad ass!" There was much hype leading up to the show because I had been hearing about their program, and trust me when I say it lived up to every bit of it. I'll gush about it in full in the next post.

I was also seeing Carolina Crown for the second time in Bloomington. It seems to me their staging was constantly designed to say, "Look how many contras we have!" It's 16, for the record.

Some "clever" group of younglings shouted out "Go Shaniqua!" prior to the Cavaliers' performance. The Cavs are an all-male corps, which would make this mildly amusing, if not overdone.

A margin of my little notepad also has a list entitled "Plate Club". Several corps were marching cymbals this year, including The Colts, Spirit, The Academy, Pioneer, Pacific Crest, Madison Scouts, Crossmen, and of course, Santa Clara Vanguard.

Up next, I'll really break it down for y'all.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Drum Corps International: A Primer

I made the trip this past weekend to Bloomington, Indiana for the Drum Corps International World Championships. This will be the first of several posts attempting to put that amazing experience into words, and I thought a good place to begin would be describing exactly what DCI is for the few of you who read this and even fewer who may not be familiar beyond "that thing Curtis won't shut up about each summer". A shirt seen this past weekend read "For those who know, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't, no explanation will suffice." But i'm going to can the arrogance and try to explain as best I can what this whole thing is about. Since my blog is simulcast over at the Yard Barker Network, I'll be including sports analogies so as to hopefully be speaking some folks' language.

For starters, DCI, which has dubbed itself "Marching Music's Major League," is the governing body (as with NFL or MLB) for junior drum and bugle corps throughout North America.
The term junior corps may be misleading and suggest to some that these groups are inferior to a "senior corps" circuit; rather, it simply denotes that DCI is a youth activity, with all participants being 22 years of age or younger. In the top corps, most participants are college students, many of whom also march with their college's marching band. DCI has taken to using the term "musician-athletes" to refer to its participants, and while I would not classify DCI as a sport, I think this designation is absolutely spot-on due to the peak physical performance they demonstrate each and every day of the Summer Music Games, the annual tour that criss-crosses the country each summer where these corps are showcased.

Each corps contains up to 150 musician-athletes, and while at first glance a corps may look like marching bands with which you are familiar, there are key differences. First of all, drum corps are all brass and percussion, meaning you won't find flutes, clarinets, saxophones, or other woodwinds on the field. Instead, instrumentation includes trumpets, mellophones, baritones, euphoniums, and tubas, all bell front models; a drumline consisting of basses, snares, tenors, and sometimes cymbals; a front ensemble (or "pit") which includes concert percussion such as chimes, marimbas, xylophones, tympani, rack toms, and often additional bells and whistles (sometimes quite literally!). In addition to these musicians, each corps also features a colorguard, a group of performers who also paint the entire color of the corps and their performance through use of equipment--flags, sabres, and rifles are standard, but so many other implements are used--as well as dance and theatrics. For each summer's tour, a corps puts together a 12-minute show which they will spend countless hours fine-tuning and perfecting as they tour the country on buses and sleeping on gym floors, performing nearly every day during the season in every corner of the US, a tour which culminates in the World Championships, which I just attended this weekend.

Competition in DCI, while unique, can be related to several sports. Steve Young (yes, that Steve Young) described drum corps as the ultimate team activity at the 2007 finals, and with 150 participants, plus a sizable support staff, that's certainly an accurate depiction. In addition to that, DCI competition bears resemblance to olympic gymnastics, golf, and NASCAR. As with NASCAR, each competition features a lineup of several competitors, with DCI's large regional events featuring all corps. While the main focus of NASCAR is the driver and his car, a team is necessary for success, relying on specialization and excellence in a particular area. DCI's two major levels, World Class and Open Class, can be compared to the differentiation between the Sprint Cup series and the Busch series. And whether it's pit row or the lot, fan accessibility in both activities is paramount. The golf comparison is that while many events are hosted by the Association itself, there are also those hosted by the individual players/corps. And as in gymnastics, scoring is determined by a panel of judges, who assign a numerical score to various aspects of competition.

So there you have it--my DCI primer. Next step I'll be breaking down this year's Championship weekend. Till then (and the fans will get this one): I AM SPARTACUS!
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