DCW On-Line: Omaha NE Review

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Blue Devils B stay undefeated in cross country Open Class opener

July 25, 2009 — Omaha, NE . . . The calendar said there were just two weeks left in the Drum Corps International season, but last Saturday’s “Drums Across Nebraska” contest felt like the Open Class opener to most of the eight competing corps and their directors. That’s because it was the first time this season the corps from different regions came together to compete in an all-Open Class contest.

Yet if there were any “opening night jitters” before a half full Millard South High Buell Stadium, they didn’t show in the undefeated Blue Devils B (65B-36P-19CG-2DM=122) as they powered their way to a victory of more than two points over their arch rivals, the Santa Clara Vanguard Cadets. While BDB’s win confirmed their role as Open Class championship favorites, the Blue Devils’ A corps also stayed undefeated at the World Class regional in Atlanta — making the prospects of the Concord, CA, organization’s first title sweep a growing possibility.

“Well, I mean for the organization I just have to be honest with you, it would be an exciting thing to do,” said Blue Devils B Director Rick Odello. “You never know, you know, it always comes down to that final show and we certainly don’t want to expect anything. But gosh, it’s never happened before. You can’t help but think about it to be honest with you and we’d be overjoyed if we could pull that off.”

Everyone in Open Class appears to be chasing the biggest and probably best Blue Devils B in corps history, one that has a mature look and sound that would probably play well on the World Class field, too. BDB would love to run and hide from the rest of the competition for the final two weeks, so it seems appropriate that it’s playing a “Hide and Seek” program. The production has visual elements reminiscent of both the Bluecoats’ 2003 “Capture and Escape” and Blue Devils’ 2008 “Constantly Risking Absurdity” shows, as members break away from the ensemble and race around the form as others pursue.

The corps has no apparent weaknesses as it displays the organization’s trademark power and precision through the four selections by contemporary composers Imogen Heap and John Meehan. Visually, the corps moves smoothly and crisply in and out of boxes, wedges, lines, arcs and spirals, all supported effectively by the guard’s weapons proficiency.

Just like the big Blue Devils, BDB appears to make a complex program look easy. The only question is whether the show has the depth to maintain its lead over the final two weeks.

Don’t count out the defending champion Santa Clara Vanguard Cadets (45B-28P-28CG-2DM=103) just yet. While tonight’s spread might seem insurmountable with just two weeks left, the corps was in a similar position last year. They also won percussion (16.7 to 16.6) tonight and were competitive with BDB in all but two other captions — color guard (18.1 to 17.1) and GE music (17.8 to 17.0).

And unlike last year’s rather esoteric championship production, this season’s “A Story of Love” is probably more accessible without losing any demand. Every corps wants to touch the heart of its audience and this one goes straight to the heart, showing a more symphonic, softer side of the Vanguard Cadets. Even the uniform has been softened from last year’s dark green and black look by adding a splash of red along with white pants and shoes.

“I think we’re showing a softer side, you could say, of the Vanguard Cadets this year, but still with some good old-fashioned drum corps that we try to do,” said tour director Rob Nieves. “But I think overall this show is more of that softer, emotional side and not as much ‘in your face’ — and I think that it’s good. I think it’s good for the corps members. We’re pulling different emotions out of them than what we did last year and we’re trying something different.”

They try and do something different with the same unmistakable Vanguard flair, starting with the pit positioned in an arc that bends on to the right side of the field between the 35 and 45. While Nieves says the show may not feature as much “in your face” drum corps, the position of the pit allows the rest of the musical ensemble to get more up-close and personal with the audience by filling the vacated space with recognizable love melodies from such musicals as “Rent” and “Moulin Rouge.” Meanwhile, the color guard, clad in brilliant yellow outfits that complement the rest of the ensemble, portrays the emotional element through character development and color enhancements.

The corps has not maximized its emotional impact from this vehicle. If it does, game-on again with Blue Devils B in another fight to the finish.

Revolution (39B-25P-21CG-2DM=87) also signaled its intent on making its 10th birthday campaign a memorable one, finishing third with hopes of maintaining a top-three finish in two weeks. This corps has grown considerably in maturity and execution with its “ElementALL” program, now connecting all four elements — fire, water, earth and air — in the opening pre-show as silks bearing those elements meet at midfield while the corps circles to the accompaniment of Simple Gifts, the corps song. The silks are used effectively by the guard to portray each element as the corps moves through corresponding musical selections that pay a subtle musical tribute to the corps’ history.

“We wanted to get back to our roots as far as show design, something a little bit simple, but yet trying to doing it in a very, very complex way,” said Revolution Director Johnny Rodriguez. “The whole idea for ‘ElementALL’ was a way for us to be able to do a best-of-show without it being a best-of-show. So we keyed in on the visual aspects of the four basic elements — touching in on elements of our past. So a lot of the pieces we’ve done have some connection to our past and then a lot of the music we’re going into, we’re trying to stray away of more of the film scores and going more into deep, darker wind ensemble music.”

The corps now confidently transitions between the genres and through crisp drill sets. While a rocking percussion section has always been a Revo hallmark, the brass and the color guard are catching up this year. And yet, there is still room to grow in this aggressive book which may make this program’s Revo’s strongest ever.

The Oregon Crusaders (36B-24P-9CG-2DM=71) also nearly topped 80 and should be in prime position for another top-six finish in two weeks. But the score and placement were less significant to this corps, which was just relieved to be out on tour and leaving its financial troubles behind.

“We had a gala event and invited the Portland community and a lot of our supporters from the past to come out and see the corps,” said Oregon Crusaders Director Michael Quillen. “And we had Mayor Sam Adams from Portland come out and visit us as well and we were just able to make up the difference we needed to get on the road.”

You’d hardly know the organization has had any hardships this season based on the brilliant show design and the corps’ performance levels. While the three contemporary Michael Daugherty selections are unfamiliar, the visual story of “Equilibrium” is memorable and clearly told with the help of four red see-saws positioned both on the 50 and along the right front sideline, respectively. Ensemble members take turns balancing back and fourth on the props.

But that’s not the only balancing act found in this show, which opens with brass members lying on their backs as they play the opening notes. The show also features several moments when ensemble members balance themselves on one leg while playing. The drill also teeters back and fourth from side one to side two.

Now that the corps appears to have gained its equilibrium again after possible financial distress, look for OC to be headed back upward in its see-saw season.

Memphis Sound, Memphis, TN
Photo by Jeff Hiott
Courtesy of Drum Corps World

The 2007 Division III champion Memphis Sound (15B-20P-14CG-2DM=51), soon to be Forté, hasn’t had much go right since it left its new Dallas/Ft. Worth home for the final tour under its old name — having to go on without its equipment semi and food truck, and then having the drum major’s stand stolen last week. But the corps was rewarded for perseverance tonight, topping the entertaining Velvet Knights by more than two points to a good position for another finals’ berth in two weeks.

“I don’t think we’ve made it a solid week with consistent equipment vehicles for the entire tour,” said Gary Westbrook, Memphis Sound’s tour director. “But, the volunteers, the staff and the kids have all been great. And what they’re learning is that it’s all fluid and it’s all flexible and if you adjust in life — just like you adjust on the field — you learn to adapt.”

Equipment issues aside, two thirds of this corps appears strong, with both the percussion and color guard featuring good size and talent. And while the brass isn’t quite at that level, the full ensemble seemed largely in synch for the evening performance of “Celebrations — Rebirth of a Planet,” which may also symbolically celebrate the organization’s rebirth in Texas from its troubled financial past.

The color guard creates a Planet Earth presence through its beautiful sky blue costumes, also using corresponding long sky blue poles in the opener. The musicians also present a pleasing ensemble sound, although the brass lost some stamina in the show’s second half tonight. That may be a result of some brass members being forced to sit out that portion of the show while the rest of the corps learned new drill at rehearsal earlier in the day.

The Velvet Knights (22B-23P-9CG-2DM=56) also look to be in legitimate finals contenders for the first time since returning to the field three years ago. Of course, the corps also looks like its old self when it last made a DCI finals in 1992 — then in Division I — returning to the red Chuck Taylor sneakers and white tuxedo jackets with long tails that had been a corps staple. They still wear last year’s top hats, but the look and entertainment value of the show are all there. The former director from the corps’ glory years, Jack Bevins, agrees.

“Entertain the people, that’s what it’s all about because that’s what we do best,” said Bevins, who is back on tour with the corps this summer. “It’s nice to see them coming back after a little delay. They’re bringing it back and if they can just keep it going now, and get those young people involved in this, they’ll go.”

Like Bevins, this year’s “Cirque D’ VK . . . Lions, Tigers and SHARK!! Oh My . . .” show is pure VK, or make that, “Too cool VK!” What better way to start than a pre-show featuring one of the corps’ signature moments, the theme from Jaws, followed by screams and a run onto the field. The program itself is true showmanship surrounding a challenging book that includes the likes of Thunder and Blazes and Hungarian Rhapsody. The percussion section leads the show, finishing just six-tenths off the top spot tonight.

Meanwhile, the color guard may be small in number, but proficient in their weapons work. They enhance the playful storyline, particularly in the ballad as one featured member dons a pink tutu to take a simulated beating, finishing the chart on crutches and wearing a neck brace. The guard also becomes fierce as tigers, with corresponding costumes, for the rousing closer.

The Colt Cadets (28B-28P-14CG-2DM=72) also exhibit some childlike playfulness in “Lullabye and Good Nightmare,” although in a bit more serious show that left them just .35 down to VK tonight. It almost seems as if Cadets are now playing the more serious drum corps game while continuing their musical education mission to young people. That may explain why they appear a bit smaller, but more mature this season, putting them in contention for the corps’ first finals berth.

It will help their finals push that the corps has recovered well from a rash of injuries and illness that decimated their ranks earlier this season.

“I would commend the 2009 Colt Cadets. They’re different than any group I’ve ever worked with in terms of how well they deal with adversity,” said Colt Cadets Director Vicki Schaffer. “Whether it’s 110 degrees, switching busses twice in one day or the biggest roadblocks along the way, that’s when they come together and it’s just not a problem. They don’t have any problems or let anything get in their way. And to deal with a group of young people who approach life that way is just phenomenal.”

The nocturnal story of adventure is now being told more effectively through greater musical projection and more colorful accents from the guard to enhance the visual imagery. Now nearly at full strength, the Colt Cadets are growing in size and strength daily, with only their ensemble music score (12.9) lagging well behind on tonight’s score sheet. And there’s still time for them to bolster that and literally play their way into finals.

The Racine Scouts (13B-13P-7CG-1DM=34) are America’s oldest continually operating junior drum corps and seem quite comfortable with who they are under those chromedomes after all these years. That’s a corps typically small in number and young in age, performing a program of recognizable tunes that’s not too tough for the membership.

Given that identity, this summer’s “New York Scenes, Under Chrome Lights” is a perfect fit. And this year’s corps, while still obviously less experienced than the competition, is probably performing at a slightly higher level than it has in recent years.

The show’s certainly not deep, particularly demanding or complex. But it’s effective in its own way, with drill effectively staged between the 30s and largely along the front third of the field, with an accessible theme built around New York musical classics like Give My Regards to Broadway, 42nd Street and Sing, Sang, Sung. And after the fake ending, the ensemble kicks back in with, what else, New York, New York, for the big finish.

Based on the first big battle of the Open Class season, there could also be another big World Championship finish in two weeks.

You may discuss this review on the DCP Forums. We’d love to hear your feedback.

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Posted by on Saturday, August 8th, 2009. Filed under DCW On-Line.