DCW On-Line: Madison Review

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Cavies’ Samurais ambush Cadets’ ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ for DCI Madison win

June 28, 2008 — Madison, WI . . . Camp Randall Stadium. Say that name to drum corps fans and they’ll wax nostalgic about the performances they’ve seen in that legendary University of Wisconsin venue, which has hosted no less than seven Drum Corps International World Championships, the last in 2006. It is widely viewed as one of the best stadiums for drum corps in the country.

Through the years, Camp Randall has been good to The Cavaliers, who won their first DCI title there in 1992 and their last there two years ago. All totaled, they won three of their seven titles in Madison. And that sacred drum corps ground proved to have great karma for the “Green Machine” again as the Cavies’ samurais ambushed the Cadets’ “Pursuit of Happiness” to take top honors at DCI Madison to cap the first week of the 2008 season.

“Well we have a nice history here at Camp Randall. The fans are great,” said Kevin Gates, the 22-year-old drum major of The Cavaliers who hails from The Woodlands, TX. “We just came out tonight and had a really good ensemble show. We had some rub here and there and some rough edges, but even though we had a short rehearsal day today, we came out and did what we do and it was pretty comfortable tonight.”

And Camp Randall did what it annually does to drum corps shows, treating the hearty crowd of long-time fans to a perfect feast of sight and sound from the 19 competing corps — 13 World Class, three Open Class and three all-age.

Not everyone was so happy to see both Camp Randall and some of its veteran drum corps fanatics. It hasn’t been as kind to The Cadets, who won two of their nine DCI championships there, but none since 1987. And Cadets Director George Hopkins acknowledged that it’s a tough crowd for his corps, particularly with this year’s heavily-narrated production.

“This is a tough place to play here in Madison,” Hopkins said. “I mean, it’s all adults. There are not a lot of kids here, so it’s a more traditional crowd, and they had an all-age program before that (the DCI performances). It’s not the ideal audience for us, but people are going to like us and people are not going to like us. It’s going to be one of those shows.”

The Camp Randall experience was kinder to four other World Class corps: the Bluecoats, who slipped by brassy Carolina Crown for third; the cosmic Boston Crusaders, who were fifth; Wisconsin’s own Blue Stars, who stunned a pair of 2007 finalists (the Blue Knights and Spirit of JSU) to tie for sixth; and the Troopers, who powered their way to an upset of the hometown Madison Scouts.

San Antonio’s Open Class corps, Revolution, also has fond memories of Madison, the site of its one and only DCI title as it won in Division III here in 2002. Revo — and specifically its late-arriving drum line — found its way to another title on this night, winning Open Class against the fresh-faced Colt Cadets and Racine Scouts. The young corps found Camp Randall to be an eye-opening experience.

“Basically, the first thing you have to do is prep the kids on the ‘ahh’ moment and then tell them to get over it real fast and just hang tight together,” said Colt Cadets Director Vicki Schaffer. “I know sometimes what can be challenging is as people are coming into the show earlier, it’s prepping the kids on either direction. You get the shellshock of the giant stadium, then also being prepared that even if you have a great crowd — with a couple of thousand people — it may look like a real small audience. So it’s also prepping the kids, among the early corps on, just to make sure they’re performing as big and strong as they can with the same energy and excitement.”

Youth also played a hand in the all-age division, but in reverse. The more youthful and athletic Minnesota Brass solidly bested its two older competitors, the Kilties and Chops Inc.

But it was The Cavaliers (72B-30P-36CG-3DM = 141) who attacked their performance like none other to defeat all comers on this night. And that’s the whole idea behind “Samurai”, right from the start as the two rival samurai warriors, surrounded by the fellow guard “soldiers”, battle to death during the first dramatic musical moment.

From there, it’s like a samurai chase scene in four parts as only The Cavaliers can visually tell it. That means in moves swiftly, accurately, athletically and interpretively, with some patented Cavalier kaleidoscopic moves along the way. As you might expect from samurais, the guard performs its weapon work with acute precision and the music sounds authentic to the genre, with plenty of eerie oriental sounds emanating from the pit, while the brass produces some strange backfield key changes that were haunting against Camp Randall’s backfield bowl. All the while, the drummers aggressively attack Jim Casella’s complex book like samurais.

“It’s an incredible show. The notes are absolutely fantastic,” said Ted Leith, a 21-year-old Cavalier snare drummer from Lexington, KY. “It’s definitely innovative in my opinion, as far as the percussion scene goes right now. It’s very challenging. There’s a lot of ensemble difficulty and it’s pretty much the craziest show I’ve ever been in — and I’ve been in four years of drum corps.”

The Cadets (70B-29P-40CG-2DM = 141) design team appears to be trying to take last year’s heavily-scripted production to the next level, having designated actors on their own set to visually “tell” the story of Sara Jones’ life and her pursuit of happiness through an interview on APR’s “Live in America.”

But while last year The Cadets had corps members speaking from all over the field, this year’s actors aren’t telling their own story. The voices are coming from behind the black curtain on the front sideline. That maybe creates more of a disconnect with the crowd, which already is having a hard time coming to grips with the concept. Knowing The Cadets, they’ll make some changes to tell it better in their pursuit of happiness by season’s end.

Just like last year, the dialogue sometimes gets in the way of what’s an otherwise masterful musical and visual performance. As their names imply, “Nitro” and “Vesuvius” are intensely hot pieces that are in the mold of past Cadet classics. The problem is, they’re not necessarily the focus. It’s on Mrs. Jones, who’s married with two kids and has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, for those who are listening.

The Cadets – Allentown, PA
DCW On-Line Photo by Dan Scafidi

And as Jones tells her life’s story, the real actors are the prominently staged color guard, dressed in purple jump suits, who have the task of portraying what the characters say.

“At The Cadets, we’re definitely pushing the envelope as far as the narration goes and a lot of people are on the fence about it,” said Emma Roberts, color guard captain in the corps’ 2005 championship season who is now color guard caption head. “A lot of people love it. A lot of people hate it. But it’s definitely a unique approach and it takes a whole other level of skill to be able to interpret what someone is actually saying, rather than a big musical chord or a drum solo or whatever.

“You have to interpret somebody’s words, so it takes a lot of extra skill, but we’ve kind of mastered that art and I think between the music and the narration, we’re going to be able to get our point across. It’s going to be really emotional.”

Ironically, the only narration currently in the Bluecoats’ (72B-30P-40CG-3DM = 145) show, “The Knockout,” was omitted by an electrical problem to the sound system tonight. But it didn’t hamper the crowd’s understanding or appreciation of the boxing theme, a show that seemed to get stronger as it went along, like a prize fighter.

What’s not to get? The corps is playing music that has fighting themes, namely “On The Waterfront,” a wonderful a cappella arrangement of “The Boxer” and the popular arrangements from the motion picture “Rocky’”. The color guard is all costumed in blue and white boxer tank tops and trunks. There’s even a reoccurring “main event” between two featured boxers and a tasty percussion feature that starts with the basses and the guard doing a little work on the speed bag.

The show is not nearly as deep or complex as some of the ’Coats’ concepts of the last several years, but it definitely “hits you in the face” with their trademark power and performance quality. That should have the corps fighting for another top-six finish.

Of course to do that, the Bluecoats will have to stand up to powerful Carolina Crown (80B-30P-36CG-3DM = 149), which may be even stronger now that it has its “Finis” program completely finished with the addition of the “Candide” start. Maybe it’s because of Crown’s big sound in a show about endings, but the new beginning almost seems out of place. The segment now torments the audience, which is anxious to get to the first big power chord. The corps also seemed a bit tentative with its new addition, making the show less powerful than a week earlier in Stillwater.

“We’re still trying to get used to that beginning, but I think we’re getting more and more confident,” said Evan Van Doren, a 21-year-old drum major of Carolina Crown from Bloomington, In, and the son of noted brass consultant Donnie Van Doren. “I think the more shows we have the better it will be, the more confident we’ll become and the better the show will get for the fans.”

That’s not to say that the program didn’t grab the audience, particularly when Crown hits it with everything it’s got in the “1812 Overture”, “Appalachian Spring” and “Hallelujah Chorus” ending. But the show just seemed to lack the emotional impact of the week before, maybe because Crown had the dubious honor of following the victorious Cavaliers. The color guard seemed particularly off with a number of equipment drops — that from a unit that never seemed to miss a year ago.

The Boston Crusaders (68B-27P-40CG-2DM = 137) appear to be exploring strange new worlds where the corps has never gone before in “Neocosmos.” But in doing so, it’s also stepped up its performance to new heights, particularly with an engaging visual package and more powerful brass. Of course, the silver-clad, futuristic color guard will draw your eye from the “2001 Space Odyssey” start and their equipment-handling excellence is worthy of attention.

But so is this show, which definitely breaks new ground through such selections as “Kingfishers Catch Fire” and the rugged “Burly Brawl.” And just when you think this can’t possibly be the Boston Crusaders comes the modern interpretation of their trademark “Conquest” to bring you back to Earth and cap a program that could take them to rarified air by season’s end.

Boston experienced its DCI breakthrough in Madison by making finals for the first time in 1999. While there’s still a long way to finals night this summer, the Blue Stars (70B-29P-42CG-3DM = 144) may have taken a big step in Madison toward making it back to finals for the first time since 1979. Everything seems to fit in “Le Tour: Every Second Counts”, from the French-influenced music to the drill, which winds over the field like the riders in the Tour de France do over the French countryside — to the color guard’s colorful biking costumes and accompanying props.

The guard has now been grouped into biking “teams” — red, orange, blue and purple — with corresponding silks to match. The famed yellow shirt, given to the winner of each stage in The Tour, has also found its way into this program at the end of the show’s first “stage”, and eventually multiplies until the entire guard is in yellow shirts by the end. The corps may not get yellow shirts for a finals berth, but it would gladly trade them for a position on DCI’s grandest stage again. And their bicycle tour may be well on its way.

“It’s actually been a really, really great process, because they’ve (corps members) been working really hard since the beginning,” said Blue Stars’ color guard caption head Michael Shapiro, the mastermind behind this year’s Tour de France theme. “We’re trying to give them a lot of different things as a drum corps to give them kind of a new identity. So it was great to kind of see that happen to them tonight for the first time in a big stadium.”

The Blue Stars may have added some substantial color during the week, but they’ve still got a way to go to catch the Glassmen (66B-30P-40CG-2DM = 138) and their “Kar-ne-val” program. Sal Salas’ color influence appears to be all over this corps, specifically the large and talented color guard which steals the show again with their charisma and equipment-handling skill. They’re designed to provide the color against the musical ensemble’s stark black and cream contrast.

And provide it they do, as the field literally comes alive with the silks that compliment the balloons given to the featured little girl in a purple dress when she visits the carnival. Just like the carnival, this show is fun and exciting, replete with plenty of slapstick moments. It’s hard to believe this is the same Glassmen that used to produce such serious abstract programs.

But while entertaining, the musical ensemble lags in its performance quality, possibly because there are still six brass holes in the drill. The percussion looks great, particularly the battery, and the reflective blue/gold finish of the Dynasty drums are easily among the most attractive of the night.

The role of DCI’s abstract champion has been passed to the Blue Knights (72B-30P-40CG-2DM = 144), who are celebrating a 50th anniversary year with a “Knight Reign” program that is anything but a musical “through the years” anthology. There are hints of the corps’ musical past, most noticeably the “Trittico” tag near the end of the opener, but most of the BK history is told through all of its trademark visual moves.

Blue Knights – Denver, CO
DCW On-Line Photo by Ron Walloch

There’s the knee flex, the prance step, body-sculpting moments and all of those richly-colored, hand-painted flags. They literally are the color of the rainbow during the “Amazing Grace” closer. And that just may be the idea since the show is telling the story of how the Blue Knights have weathered the storms over the years to emerge at 50 with a bright future ahead. The show may not be scintillating yet, but the corps is solid across the board and will be hard to keep out of finals, particularly as the concept grows over the summer.

Spirit (68B-35P-40CG-2DM = 145) also seems to have gone the more modern, contemporary route to accompany its uniform change last summer. And while this year’s program, “pe-ri-4-ry”, may be more approachable in spots than the one of a year ago, most notably how “Piano Concerto I — The Beach”, the main theme from the Academy Award-winning film “The Piano”, is woven throughout. It truly seems to be on the periphery when it comes to being fan friendly.

Yet that didn’t stop Spirit from powering its way into finals a year ago, marking its third-straight 12th-place finish. And this corps seems to have that talent to make it back with a show that displays its theme by framing the field’s periphery throughout, similar to The Cavaliers’ 2002 “Frameworks” production. Those visual sets are where that comparison ends, particularly with Spirit’s weakest area being its visual performance right now. It will need to clean that up and improve the show’s overall appeal. Otherwise, Spirit could find itself on the stadium’s periphery come finals night.

The now independent Crossmen (64B-34P-36CG-2DM = 136) from Texas look more like true “Bones” with their uniform update, which has removed all the red accents and replaced them with white against the black uniform and Aussie hat. But they sure look and sound like the old Crossmen in their “Planet X” production, which largely is their own jazzy take on Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” The music is familiar, but in a new grooving, contemporary package.

And “X” marks the spot visually,starting with the opening set, which features an X-shaped musical standstill and the guard interspersed and spinning brightly-colored silks. After that, the musical arrangements exchange the “Planets” melody across the field and through the various ensemble voices. It’s all tied together through the pit percussion, which provides some literal interpretations of Holst’s classic.

Like the first letter in the show’s name, this program also gets a big “P” for potential. It’s well-constructed and entertaining, but the youthful-looking performers lose stamina at times, resulting in an uneven performance. But there’s plenty of time to improve and put the X-men among the crowded group of finals contenders.

It was already going to be a special season for The Troopers (64B-26P-12CG-3DM = 105) on their 50th anniversary and now the musical ensemble is putting out the type of powerful sound this corps hasn’t seen since 1986, its last of eight DCI finals berths, with “The Iron Horse Express.” Following a moving warm-up, they unleash that power from a standstill wedge and then transition right into the slow, mechanical acceleration of the train leaving the station on its trip back through the corps’ storied history. The members enhance the train effects with their mechanical movements as the engine picks up steam.

And the corps has musically picked up steam from last year, with 75 percent of its brass members coming back to produce a warmer, more mature sound. The percussion continues to support a balanced ensemble package that references many Trooper and Western favorites — particularly during the patented Sunburst to “Ghost Riders in the Sky”.

The weak link right now is the 12-member color guard which is both the smallest and least experienced in the World Class ranks. Director Fred Morris says reinforcements are on the way, with commitments to push that number over 20 as the summer progresses. But regardless, he couldn’t be more pleased with the current product.

“I think the crowd has responded (to this year’s program) and we’re doing pretty well,” Morris said. “For this early, here it’s only the end of June, we’re way ahead of where we were last year. I think the corps is better now this year than it was at the end of last year.”

The Madison Scouts (68B-38P-25CG-2DM = 133) saw their mid-week momentum derailed with the loss to the Troopers, even though they appeared to have made some solid strides with their program, “La Noche de la Iguana”. The show is the vision of Program Coordinator Ramiro Barrera, who is now on tour with the corps, and it shows. The Scouts appeared much more confident in their performance of the music and projection of the Latin-American interpretive dance moves.

The color guard’s uniform is also now complete, adding black leather jackets with gold accents to the matching pants for a more Latin look. But while the new costume portrays the theme, its dark color and corresponding colorless opening silks lack the impact of their closest rivals. The new olive-colored jackets and black pants of the musical ensemble also blend a bit too closely with the grass-colored field surface, resulting in some of the corps’ most effective visual moments being lost. That didn’t keep the Scouts from a more aggressive performance that drove the hometown crowd enthusiastically to its feet tonight.

Once again, Pioneer (35B-34P-19CG-2DM = 90) finds itself in a numbers game. While the World Class membership limit is now 150 and most corps have expanded in-kind, Pioneer is fielding a corps that would still be considered small by old Division I standards. Because of that, it’s going to hard-pressed to keep up competitively.

Pioneer – Milwaukee, WI
DCW On-Line Photo by Dan Scafidi

But that shouldn’t detract from a well-conceived and nicely performed “Celtic Reflections” program. Nobody does Irish better than the green-clad corps from Milwaukee and this one may be the best yet. Pioneer’s 35th anniversary program contains some Celtic classics in "Suite for Military Band in E-flat," "Celtic Symphony" and "Crown Imperial". The color guard is attractively clad in their classy crushed green velvet and black Riverdance dresses. Six featured performers establish the right mood as they strike the pose on top of triangular-shaped props/equipment units and lead an Irish rhythm on hand drums. The corps builds the intensity of the rhythm to set the program off on a rousing trip through the Irish landscape, replete with plenty of dancing, shamrocks and green and orange color.

Revolution (27B-27P-14CG-2DM = 70) didn’t seem to be phased by a timing scare that found the brass, guard and pit positioned in its opening set, only to wait some five minutes for the drum line to find its way to the field. But drum lines know timing and this one was actually right on time for the 5:55 performance, resulting in no penalty.

Maybe it was because of all that added adrenaline from the scare, but the “el.e.va.tion” program had a special life to it as it moved from its simple to complex theme. The battery (7S-5T-5B) was worth the wait as it was featured throughout and drove the contemporary show of largely unfamiliar music. All sections were proficient throughout the production, which climaxed with the corps’ trademark Lone Star closing set and accompanying silks. All indications are that Revo is very much alive and well in the Lone Star state, despite having a World Class neighbor (the Crossmen) now in its San Antonio backyard.

The Colt Cadets (26B-30P-22CG-2DM = 80) may look older and more mature in their new shakos, but their youth was exposed in the gusting wind across the big stadium. How strong was the wind? Strong enough to take the sideline yard markers from the 20 and 30 all the way to the end zone. And that meant it was also gusty enough to carry airborne flags and pulse pockets out of the control of the inexperienced corps members, making the “New American Signatures” performance far less confident than the previous week in Stillwater. But they’ll learn from the experience and grow from it over the course of the summer, just like they are from their first exposure to multi-meter in the “Song for America” closer. Expect the program of pop selections to be a fan favorite by August.

As young as the Colt Cadets are, the Racine Scouts (16B-8P-7CG-1DM = 32) are even younger. And yet the “Frankly Sinatra” program is designed perfectly for their experience level. It’s not complex or thought-provoking, but it doesn’t need to be for these kids, who are properly staged up front for much of the show in a drill that doesn’t require too much physical demand. That allows the ensemble to put out a pretty cohesive sound through the familiar Sinatra selections, in spite of its mini-corps size. And the guard supports it well, even providing a few dance steps that would make “Old Blue Eyes” proud. While the show may not be a competitive winner, it’s the right vehicle to allow these drum corps novices to entertain and come away with a positive impression of the drum corps experience.

Upon taking a closer look at the faces in Minnesota Brass (36B-33P-24CG-2DM = 95), there is plenty of youth in that corps, too. But this appears to be seasoned youth with past corps experience, allowing MBI to attempt some junior corps demand in its senor corps design. That was all the edge it needed tonight against its much older opponents.

Its “Obsessions” program is coming along nicely, with more color guard equipment and work added in the last week. Musically, the show is popular with fans. Sting’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger” opens with a lush mellophone solo against sky blue- and copper-colored flags and particularly seemed to connect better with the audience today. The percussion transitions out of that number with the show stopper — a double-timing, Latin-influenced feature that starts with claves and cowbells to lead it into the “throw down” section. While there is still some dirt at this early stage of the season, it should clean up nicely and be a real treat for fans at DCA Championships in September.

Scott Stewart has the Kilties (46B-34P-15CG-8HG-1DM = 104) better prepared to be a serious player in DCA come Labor Day weekend with their program of Renaissance composer Michael Preetorious. The brass has always had a pleasant warmth and they take that sound on the move a bit more this year with a more aggressive visual package. Some of the trademark moves when Stewart was with the Scouts are now in this production, which opens with a Scout-like power wedge for the corp’s first big impact.

While the brass section shows that it can handle a bit more physical demand, it still showcases more accurate articulation in its standstill moments. The percussion section is large (11PP-8S-4T-5B-6C) and capable, although not tremendously clean at the start of the season. It does have a tasty feature that is accented by the color guard handling reflective shields, interspersed in the brass members’ drill. That’s the most notable moment for the guard, which is still missing much of its work.

For Chops, Inc. (11B-14P-6CG-2DM = 33), a small corps got even smaller over the last week, with five less bodies on the field Saturday (1B-2P-2CG). But that may have been by design as its pop program “7 O’Clock and Ready to Rock” was much more cohesive. Almost all the color guard work now appears to be in, although only four of the six members performed much of the equipment work in the “C’mon and Take a Free Ride” opener.

The show is designed well for a small corps and playful — particularly the washboard feature by the two snare drummers at the start of “I’ve got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates”. The drum line also provides the best moment during a feature when four additional bass drums are brought to the field and added to the existing four, then all eight members jam to the “Sing, Sing, Sing” rhythm before doing “running” split parts, ala The Cadets in their mid-1990s show.

Nineteen corps over six hours in one of the real shrines of drum corps. It doesn’t get much better for the fans, who were abuzz about the prospects for the season ahead.

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Posted by on Saturday, July 5th, 2008. Filed under DCW On-Line.