San Antonio Review - Air Conditioned Drum Corps

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Here’s a long one.

Background: I’ve been a fan of the activity since I saw the PBS broadcast of the 1987 finals while still in high school. I was the drum major of my band, but was a sax player and I did not see a transition to brass in my future, so personal participation never occurred. But I remained a fan and have attended (at least) one live show every year since the mid 90’s including the Finals in 2007. Being based in the west, my annual show of choice is Stanford, so those views are typically early season. I’m now a band dad and I’m that guy that inflicts drum corps video on anyone silly enough not to walk away when I start babbling about it. The DCI media shelf at my house is measured in feet.

Through lucky timing, my daughter had a break at a summer camp she was at in San Antonio this year during the Southwestern Championships, so I planned ahead and gave her a few days in a hotel and 10 hours of air conditioned drum corps. My daughter was a drummer until she graduated this year and has been going to shows with me for a number of years. For myself, it was a weekend trip that included 11 hours on planes (round trip) to make it happen. I would do it again (just not tomorrow).

Following are observations about most corps, the logistics and the venue. As a local high school field show coordinator as well as an announcer for local fall/winter shows, I like being at field level to witness the logistical “challenges.” I also prefer to feel the music, so I can’t comment with respect to drill design. We sat in the front row, on the aisle, stage-left, which put us at about the 43 yard line.

DCI/Venue Comment (Herding of Corps Staff) – This was the prime aisle for staff members from corps to run up the bleachers to get a high view of their performance. I expected it and given my position in the stands, it would not bother me too much. And this happened for the first 3-4 groups. Then I watched a DCI official speak to the usher at field level and she made it clear that this could no longer be allowed. Apparently DCI had texted groups to let them know that if staff needed a higher-than-the-field perspective for sound mixing, viewing, etc., they had to take the freight elevator in the entrance tunnel to go to a section designated by DCI. It then became an interesting side show for the remainder of the evening as staff members from every corps got baffled looks on their faces when the large usher refused them passage. DCI backed him every time. The only exceptions were corps directors that had the (different) “all access” badges.

Nice job DCI!

Marketplace - Being the first ime at an indoor show with an indoor marketplace, I’m not sure if the traffic patterns were normal or not, but during the intermissions, it was just tough. Not entirely unexpected, but tough. This might be improved by spreading the booths further apart and longer down the corridor, rather than the grouping that they seemed to have.

Food – I knew going in that we were to be held to the choices offered by the venue and you had your usual suspects with respect to choices with one glaring exception. Where were the sweets? No candy? No cookies, etc.? The exception was a single rolling cart with made-to-order ice cream bars on a stick. The lines at the standard food locations were not too bad as plenty of them were open, but the poor guy working this one during 2nd admission (next to the frozen cocktail guy) was in over his head.

Shows: I don’t feel like an old timer. I enjoy many of the innovations in the activity in the last 20 years. Tilt from the Bluecoats is still on heavy rotation for me. I’m not a fan of over amplified pits ro voice because someone needs to check that off their to-do list. But I believe that the corps primary goal should be to entertain the audience. Judging is obviously important and shouldn’t go away. I just hope the designs get so abstract in an attempt to garner scores that the audience is left behind to wonder why they can’t recall the musical selections of their favorite groups. Performers at all levels are putting their full energy in to their shows. Therefore, this critique should never be taken as an attack on the performers. If there’s any negativity, it’s probably design-driven and particular to this audience member’s reaction.

OK, that’s out of the way. On to the corps and what I can recall 2 days later, remembering the reviews and opinions are always of a personal nature. Opinions can’t exist without offense to those at the other end of the scale:

Louisiana Stars: I honestly was not sure I had heard of them before seeing the show Saturday. Based on their performance time, I knew they were open class. It wasn’t until reading a comment later that they were a 2nd-year corps. Holy-cow! Size was good. Volume better and the musical selections were interesting enough to keep me engaged for the whole show, while thinking, where did they come from? Regardless of their placement tonight, I hope to see them give the usual open-class leaders a run for their money. It was enough to where we kept commenting after the next few groups that we felt the Stars show was better.

Guardians/Genesis: Both corps were full in numbers and sound. I can’t recall specific instances of music or drill that jumped out at me (or that I retained), but I do recall thinking that it was nice seeing other Open Class Corps than those I’ve seen multiple times (BDB, SCVC) and realizing that there is a depth of competition in that class.

Jubal: I was excited to see a corps that was not of this continent. Before the show, I see a member walking around without the top half of their uniform on (obviously a member) and thinking they looked old for the activity. It took a bit of time to realize that their circuit has different age rules. Nonetheless, they represent their region well (on and off the field) and they clearly enjoy being here.

Jersey Surf: As they came out in their ponchos, my daughter said something to the effect of their ability to afford uniforms. Nice props that set the theme and the eventual change out of rain gear was nice. A heavy reliance on Beach Boy themes that caused me (not for the last time during the evening) to consider the music rights issue that continues to plague the activity, only more so this year.

Cascades: When did they go blue? I remember their move from Open Class (or was it Division II at the time) and being pleased to see another group from the west coast make a big move. Then I guess there were a few “off” years. Nice to see them back and relatively strong. Not sure about the mid-show dance, but I’m always pleased to see when a group can bounce back and perform at this level again.

Pacific Crest: I found myself remembering when they started and did only a partial tour and that rubbing a lot of folks the wrong way. I have a specific memory of the group flying to San Antonio to “qualify” for later regional/national competitions. They are well beyond that now. From a volume standpoint, they know how to blow. Musically I still like their 2013 show the best and hope they will continue to grow and crack in to the top 12 one of these years. As for the giant box, unless you follow the group or heard the show title, I’m not sure you would have any clue what purpose the box served. It moved from left to right as the show went on, until the end of the show when it shifted to midfield. At that point it was supposed to split to reveal the guard in white, but there seemed to be a malfunction with a wheel that caused the reveal to stutter a bit and be distracted.

Spirit of Atlanta: The best thing about getting out of my region for a show is to see groups that don’t make it out west. “Legacy” groups like SOA fit that bill for me and the greedy part of me wishes the music was something that I could easily identify with Spirit and that legacy. That wasn’t to be this year.

Mandarins: Much improved from a month ago in Stanford. I may be like many other fans, wishing it was practical for the giant prop drums to be actual drum heads. And this is the first group I can recall where the uniform for the front ensemble was the same uniform worn by the colorguard. The timing on the ending statements with the statues still needs some work, but a cool effect, nonetheless. Another group that should crack the top 12 in the next few years (I hope).

Oregon Crusaders: We have friends that have and/or continue to march for OC. Strangely enough, they don’t get down to CA for the early season show so this was our first time seeing them in person. The garden theme is well played out visually, but I’m not sure where the dramatic beats are supposed to take place. Is this a show just about the environment of the garden, or is there a struggle I somehow missed. As a dad of a drummer, I had heard about the long bass drum feature so we were ready for it and not at all disappointed. Very exposed, but well done.

Madison Scouts: I bought their “Dude” shirt. Got a number of nods/comments at the San Antonio airport yesterday. I have always liked their attitude, history and presentation (almost all of them). This was a very fan-friendly show. I heard a screamer here/there but not featured like they were last year (loved that ending). The dancing girls that are featured (I think) were creative. If it were VK, we know they would have been inflatable.

Crossmen: Had to explain the presence of Bones to my kid (these shows SHOULD be educational). I recognized some themes they played in their 2004 show which is a Crossmen show that I always found entertaining. The tarp at the front sideline was worrisome as it bunches up during the show and I saw a few members almost trip up. That and the pathway to get there through the pit was a problem. They put down a cord cover to try to cover some mic cables, but as members marched over it, it would get spun upside down repeatedly. They blow through there so quickly, this might become a safety issue.

Boston Crusaders: One of my daughter’s favorites. BAC sweatshirt purchased on this trip. We appreciate their 75 years of doing this. I knew the theme to be Conquest. And as the opener got going, I kept scratching my head trying to place the music, know it was a recent theme. Finally placing it as the theme to Game of Thrones, I spent the rest of the shows trying to figure out which banner represented the Targarians (as they always pay their debts). Thinking about it now, they could follow their creative energy from their Animal Farm show and assign houses within the activity (How would you design a banner for House Cadets?). Repeated mic failures with the vocal soloist. Not her fault. From the field, she may not have even been aware of it. But wireless mic failures are unforgiving.

Blue Stars: I found myself comparing it (a little bit) to the Star of Indiana Show in 1987. Though this is certainly a darker view of a circus. The minor chord interpretations of classic circus themes and the colorguard costumes played very well to that. For the actual sideshow performers, I wonder if auditions for this year included questions as to a performer’s “other” talents. Can you juggle, bend yourself in to a pretzel or swallow a sword? Extra points for their souvenir booth selling a Skyriders T-Shirt.

The Academy: Another graduate from Open Class domination to a destined-for-top-12 corps. They will get there. I hope they will this year so that I can get a recording of this show on the DCI Blu-Ray (if THAT happens). A fan-friendly show with a Mary Poppins interpretation. Being a Disney property (certainly the music), I fear for the music rights issue again. But a fun show all the way through. My daughter had to elbow me to point out that in the closer, the colorguard spells out supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (sp) with one letter per flag. Fantastic.

Colts: Great concept in the old-time radio drama. Some of the props worked for me, others seemed to not be worth the space on the truck for the value received on the field. At the moment, I’m not sure of the reasoning for the front-field riser from a story perspective. It featured a few characters during the show, but otherwise served little story purpose and hid a chunk of the corps during the show. Enjoyed that the front ensemble was dressed in greyscale.

Phantom Regiment: This was a 3rd viewing. We saw a dress rehearsal they did at a rehearsal site in Reno the week before the season started. AT the time, I thought it was a rather depressing outing as I did not feel the horn energy or dynamics I had come to expect. A few days later in Stanford, I was blown away by these very things and came to realize I had been sitting in front of their speaker stack and was therefore covered in goo that the horns could not cut through. I like the concept of the show and all the music is familiar (again, pleasing for the audience), but parts of it remain a concern. I don’t like the current Claire de Lune arrangement/dynamics (it deserves a stronger dynamic in the end). And either their electronics were down or they drastically cut back the organ sampler in the closer. Either way, it didn’t make a lot of sense on Saturday.

The Cavaliers: Game On? I read a review or discussion on this with the idea that the “game” might be a take on Running Man? Without bodies on the ground, it’s hard to tell outside of the “futuristic” coloring/theme of the props and the colorguard. I heard some Star Trek in the music. Performance is great, but I did not connect the performance to the declared theme.

Troopers: I like the character of this corps, starting with the swagger of their drum majors and a firm belief that every member knows what it means to be a part of that historic group. Of course their show will get compared to 2007 Crown. But the vocal ballad (Troopers) ends up being a trade out for the horse race (Crown). After previous electronic snafus, it was refreshing to have this one be clean throughout. Members really sell the last half of the show, with the lasso activity followed by the busting of fences. If there was a good way to incorporate similar story telling at the front end, that would be a better package.

Santa Clara Vanguard: Always classy. Always in my top 5. For this show, the electronic arc sound is a bit too much. It has its place in the show, but it feels a little overdone. I love the mic technique for the trumpets in the opener and the sound of the soloist in Pure Imagination. I had hoped they would medal this year, but the bunching at the top is making that tough to see.

Carolina Crown: My favorite show of the night. The moment that first banner gets pulled from the front sideline was perfectly timed from the exposure to the ability to read it across the field. It might suffer outdoors with wind, but in a show designed for an indoor final…This show also featured my favorite guard moment of the night as the rifle line was split and took turns in their tosses. The best I could describe it was it seemed as if the rifles themselves were on trampolines, rebounding at the perfect time. They tell the story well and it caused me to recall a description of Vanguard’s “Devil’s Staircase” show. “Imagine you’re in hell, and you can’t get out.” It’s an angry show, but in an embraceable way. This is the show that has the chance to inch past the top 2. And they did it with only 1 set of tympani this year.

Blue Knights: 2nd viewing. And they did it to me again. With the mirrored semi-circles, they do a great job of hiding members. To the point that early in the opener, there are no tubas visible on the field. This caused me in my first viewing to wonder whether they finally wrote off the line in favor of a synth (I fear for the day this happens with anyone). Just well staged. Beatles music…Will there be a rights issue here too?

The Cadets/Blue Devils (combined for the reason of compare/contrast): Based where I am, it’s easy to be a Blue Devils fan (most years). I liked Fellini-esque but not Re-Write of Spring. For the Cadets, Angels and Demons is my most recent favorite, but I have respected most of their work, most of the time. When BD was viewed at Stanford, I was amazed by the performance level and some of the tricks. The levitating drummers and the later rifle exchanges on the same platforms. I have always followed the discussion threads that accuse BD of stopping to play the hard stuff, so I watched for that tonight.

It was a lot easier to see it when compared to watching the Cadets in the same sitting. While we could not see/understand the “Power of 10” theming from our seats, the speed at which the Cadets march (ok, run) and play is astounding. Without loss of volume or control, it’s exhausting to watch, making it that much more incredible. BD and Cadets have totally different styles, but as long as they are judged in the same class, they will probably be trading spots for ever. Though I continue to find the confidence displayed by the BD colorguard to be untouchable.

Side note, what are the rules on adjustment of electronics during a show? I know staff runs the mixer and can have assistance from the stands. But during the BD show, a different staff member went to the stage-right speaker stack to adjust the cables running in to the speaker stack. They may have lost signal on that side and he was getting it reconnected, but this was mid-show. Just curious, as it happened with the Bluecoats as well (see below).

Bluecoats: I had great hopes for enjoying this one and maybe it will take repeat viewings from multiple camera angles. It took a while to embrace “Tilt” and it’s now a favorite of mine. I like the spheres and they do a nice job of concealing the backfield speaker stacks. It will just take a while to embrace this one musically. One of the best dram major characters of the night.

IAs for the electronics, in the first 2 minutes of the show, the front ensemble player that plays the synth gestured to one of the staff members and silently mouthed something to the effect of having no signal on his end. This caused the staff member to quickly walk to the far right end zone, to the middle of the end zone and adjust something sitting on the ground there. While he was doing that, the synth player followed his path, then went all the way to the backfield 50-yeard line to adjust something on the rear stack. He made it back in time to play the 2nd half of the show with a big smile on his face. Without hearing the show previously, I don’t know what was missing, but the mid-show adjustment was interesting to me.

Pioneer: I’d say most of the announced attendance of more than 12K audience members stuck it out for Pioneer, who had transportation issues earlier in the day, causing their late performance. I remarked to my daughter that this show would likely be one of the latest Pioneer had ever played (10:47PM) and certainly one of the largest audiences they had been in front of due to their typical placement in my memory. Their pit was out and stood at attention for 8-10 minutes before the corps marched out. Exodous was their theme and they performed a show to be proud of for the endurance test they went through on Saturday. The crowd responded in kind and hopefully this is a story the corps can lean on for a long time.

That’s it. I can’t write a short story. And I do one of these every few years. I just hope to see more “reviews” in the review forum. It seems that this year, many reviews live in the forum set up for comments during the live stream. Beggars can’t be choosers I suppose.

Good luck to all the performers in the balance of the season.

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Great review! Alamodome bout to be under going serious renovations soon to widen the corridors and needed updates in the stadium

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