DCW On-Line: Lincoln, NE Review

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Devils stay undefeated in Lincoln, fans enjoy encore concerts by all four corps

July 14, 2008 — Lincoln, NE . . . Some of the best surprises are those that come from disappointment. That was the case at the “Cornhusker Summer Music Games” at the University of Nebraska’s storied Memorial Stadium tonight.

While the show was billed to have five corps in competition, the Open Class Revolution opted to pull out to continue a mid-season camp near San Antonio and prepare for the rest of the Drum Corps International tour coming to the state later in the week.

So, faced with the prospects of only a four-corps contest, Lincoln show organizers persuaded the competing units to each play short post-contest standstill encores that more than made up for the absence of the missing corps — giving fans full dollar value for their tickets.

There was no surprise on the outcome as the Blue Devils remained undefeated by holding off Phantom’s “Spartacus” forces, which appear to be gathering momentum to their slave uprising. Of course, the performances by the defending world champion Devils and fan-favorite Regiment may have been worth the price of admission alone.

But the Troopers have also added some real “steam” to their “Iron Horse Express”, a program that now has the audience truly coming on board. And while Pioneer was left far behind in terms of program and member maturity, the Nebraska crowd also appreciated the show-opening trip to the Emerald Isle from the corps’ “Celtic Reflections”.

To truly understand the Blue Devils’ 2008 program is, well, absurd. The concept is to expect the unexpected in the program, which winds – no, make that runs — from one corner of the field to the other. And maybe the biggest absurdity is that the Devils have largely gone against their musical standard to create a show that literally wouldn’t make sense without all the visual “eye candy”, starting with the florescent orange and hot pink outfits of the color guard, which adds matching flags as the program climaxes. Maybe that’s because the program isn’t about music at all, but rather, a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Yet there’s much method to this show’s madness. It starts with the color guard tight-roping down the full yard lines with balancing poles at the start. The battery’s snares and quints open with a drum-to-drum enhanced feature on ethnic tenor drums. Meanwhile, the horn line provides pit accompaniment from the far right corner of the field as it moves in a bizarre, multi-meter manner, with half the group marching slowly in formation while the rest run through the formation to its next set, a method mimicked throughout.

The second number features the low brass and pit opening with a ballad feel, only to have the high brass disturb the moment with a contrasting driving ostinato feel, sitting cross-legged with large poles in one arm no less, a melody which eventually wins the musical fight.

Then there’s the percussion feature, which breaks new ground for field battery interpretive movement, particularly the “Weebles wobble” moment to fast unison singles, the show-stopper.

The program climaxes with its signature visual move, a stick figure formation on the left side that mirrors the same figure the color guard created with its large poles on the right. Nothing’s off limits when it comes to the creative level of absurdity, meaning there’s no ceiling to the growth for this show or no telling what the staff might come up with next.

“I think we’re opening up new ways of presenting a program and the musical entity through the visual approach that we’re using,” said DCI Hall of Famer Pete Emmons, the Blue Devils’ corps manager. “I think we’ve got a lot of room to grow and a lot of territory to explore with it. You just let your mind go and use the Ferlinghetti poem this show is inspired by and hang yourself out there to see what happens and what comes along and what develops,” he said.

What has developed for Phantom Regiment is its annual magical summer-long program make-over. Changes to “Spartacus” can be seen from the first moments the corps appears as the standard sash to its all-white uniform has been replaced by a draping of copper, silver and gold lamé, which trails over one shoulder. Silver-colored gauntlets with black accents have also been added to the uniforms to add to the medieval theme.

Phantom Regiment – Rockford, IL
DCW On-Line Photo by Kent Sallee

While the color guard’s basic slate-colored tunics haven’t changed much, chain props have been added to accent the unit’s role as slaves. They now play that role in the corps walk-on, taking a real “beating” from their goose-stepping Roman captors, played by the brass members. And that’s just the changes before the show begins.

The musical selections haven’t seen substantial edits, but they are now being played with quicker tempos and additional dynamic shaping, creating a more emotional presentation of the classic “Spartacus” story — slaves, conflict, love, murder, war and freedom. The plot still revolves around two graphic killings, one after a dual between enemy combatants early and the other when one of the drum majors, dressed appropriately in black, emerges from the backfield broken heart formation to slit the throat of the heroine during the climax of the beautiful “Dance of Ecstasy”. The action draws a gasp from the audience, which is rendered silent from the unexpected murder.

The show’s rather prominent violence has drawn mixed reviews from fans online, but the emotional response is the whole idea according to Phantom’s 22-year-old conductor, Will Pitts of Atlanta, Ga. “It’s about creating a character and creating an environment that really tells a story, Nobody out on the field is just playing a role or just setting a mood. They are that person, that character,” Pitts said. “And so, I think the violent aspect of the show is just from that intent that we want it to be as passionate, as gut-wrenching as possible.

“We want it to grab the audience as much as they can, whether they like it or whether they’re uncomfortable. The talk for us is a good thing because a lot of time, no matter what the talk is, we’re glad they’re talking about us. We like that this show is stirring up some sort of controversy in the sense that many people have mixed emotions about the violence itself.”

The show has a happy ending as the slaves throw off their chains and are freed as the corps triumphantly powers to the front in a reprise of “Dance of Ecstasy”. The corps also appears destined for another happy ending by season’s end as the program is gathering scoring momentum, positioning Phantom to make its annual move up the leader board at World Championships.

There’s nothing so deep or thought-provoking in the Troopers’ “Iron Horse Express”. While the train theme has been done countless times, nobody has been working on the railroad quite like the corps from Casper over its 50 years. And just like boarding a passenger train for a scenic tour, the audience simply has to sit back, relax and enjoy the Troopers’ trip through the Old West, with an updated, contemporary twist.

Actually, after the moving “Battle Hymn Chorale” warm-up, the program largely takes the audience through some new musical territory until the trademark sunburst welcomes “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and a quick medley of Casper classics. But the whole journey is true Troopers, particular the playful drunkenness of “Sasparilla,” in addition to the aforementioned climax.

Adding some additional “steam” to the program now is an amplified steam whistle sound that the corps literally “pulls” out at each stop in this journey, even before the sunburst. Visually, also added is a hammering rail splitter motion that is used effectively throughout, particularly before the “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” tag as the show climaxes.

Also added have been six more members of the color guard to the scant dozen that started the season on the field. While those 18 hearty souls are a far cry from some World Class competitors featuring 40 or more, the Troopers guard is more than holding its own with the more potent musical ensemble this summer.

“We’ve got 18 kids and they’re doing great,” Troopers Director Fred Morris said. “We’ve scored above some other people and we’re holding some good numbers in that category. Actually, that’s been our highest category the last several nights is our guard. These kids are really, really going at it in performance. So I’m real happy with that.”

Troopers – Casper, WY
DCW On-Line Photo by Dan Scafidi

And if the Troopers keep going at it over the remainder of the season, they might just have a shot at sneaking back into World Championship semifinals by the end.

It would appear as if Pioneer’s fate at the bottom of the World Class ranks might be sealed. The corps seems to simply be too small and too inexperienced to pass anyone else and the members may be realizing that. While the “Celtic Reflections” program is light and cheery, it actually appears to be stalled performance-wise right now, possibly because the corps just returned to the competitive tour after a week off.

There was no luck of the Irish on this night. In fact, it was anything but as two members of the color guard went down, one when her saber bloodied her nose and another after the show from what the medical staff thought was dehydration. But even before those losses, the color guard just had a rough night spinning in sync, regardless of the equipment. The unit is no doubt working hard, based on the intensity witnessed in the warm-up on air blades outside the stadium, but whether it’s the fact that some of its 20 members are new or the work is new, the performance quality isn’t up to either mid-season standards or the rest of the competition right now.

The music was a bit better, but it too suffered from some performance glitches. Even the opening rhythm on Irish hand drums by the guard members sitting atop the large triangular-shaped props with mirrors — symbolizing the “Celtic Reflections” theme — seemed to lack harmony. And the brass entry against the backfield also seemed out of phase.

Pioneer’s percussion is once again its strongest unit and it used that strength to pull the opener’s timing together, presenting the audience a pleasing rendition of Holst’s “Suite for Military Band in E-Flat”. The percussion feature also got a rousing response.

But overall, Pioneer’s performance tonight suffered from a lack of both energy and performance quality. The score reflected that as it went down by more than a point from the corps’ last contest a week earlier. Even when the unit trooped the stands to its trademark “Gary Owens March”, some young brass members were having a hard time dressing their ranks. It was a microcosm of tonight’s competitive performance.

Yet all the corps were well-received on the night, particularly after adding their extra concerts, ultimately sending the fans away satisfied that they got their money’s worth.

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Posted by on Monday, July 21st, 2008. Filed under DCW On-Line.