Driving through the Verdugo Mountains, I couldn’t help but grin and crack up. This was the kind of event Matt would have loved to attend, wasted out of his gourd and giggling the entire night. I was on my way to meet my friend, Hurley, at the DCI Championship at the Rose Bowl. DCI stands for Drum Corp International. Each year, 22 international marching bands (consisting of drums, all brass, and a percussion section along the sideline) compete to become the DCI champion. This is not your typical marching band you see at the halftime of football games or in the local Memorial Day parade. These are hard core dancing/technical marching units that play the same show night after night for two months straight in stadiums across the country. And when I say dance, I mean, guys and girls, all college age, leaping through the air while holding trumpets or mellophones, and flag guards performing modern dance movements on the field.
Hurley is a huge fan. Fanatic is a better term. Since I’ve known him in college, he has attended these shows. At one pint, while we lived in the blue house, we would often find him sitting alone in the basement listening to DCI tapes. It was strange to me then, and it’s still a little odd to me now. Fortunately, Hurley has a good sense of humor about the whole thing. He knows it’s a little geeky, but what’s he harming. We all have our obsessions. For some, it’s some singer out of Jersey, for others, it’s a bunch of kids marching routines over and over again.
I turned off the freeway and took Arroyo down toward the Rose Bowl. Memories of my marathon days rose up and I wished I were still running. This was the same turf I had trained on two years ago. Man, I miss it. As I drove toward the $15 parking lot, I came upon three kids with their thumbs hitched out. They were obviously on their way to the show. If there was anyone who wasn’t going to carjack me, it was three DCI kids. I told them to hop in and they were pretty stoked. Sure enough, they all marched in a Santa Clara division II corps band (I guess the minor leagues of drum corps). We parked, I dropped them off and they quickly disappeared into the stadium. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one late for the show as there were numerous carloads of people still arriving.
Let me point out that my sole reason for attending this event was to see Hurley. He had an extra ticket and was kind enough to invite me. However, my three years in college marching band didn’t prepare me for this crowd. These folks are intense, man. As I walked through the gates, the first thing I had to wade through was the tour merchandise of all of the bands. Trailers with t-shirts (“What happens on the bus stays on the bus”), hats, key chains, and just tons of crap. You could tell the faces of the kids who were in the bands. A lot of the guys were skinny, tanned and wore tank tops. They had a swagger that I can only describe as cocky. You see, in this world, they’re all rock stars. To band geeks, these guys RULE! In college I knew one guy like this. My last year of matching, he started hanging around the BG drum section and all of the other drummers drooled over the fact that he was in a corps band. My inferiority and territorial feelings kicked in and I fucking hated the guy. Truth is, he was a great snare player. I never saw him play any other instrument. He didn’t have to, though. Snare playing is the tops of the food chain in drum corps.
I finally caught up with Hurley. We had to wait until the band performing ended. Proper etiquette, I learned. Never enter the stadium while another band is playing. After that, we sat in what were excellent seats. With Hurley were two guys I knew from Bowling Green. They were nice men, Chris and Bob, whom I hadn’t seen in 18 years. As you can assume, we didn’t have much to talk about. But, damn it, we weren’t here for talking, we were here for the show!
The first band I saw, the Blue Knights of Denver, performed what can only be described as modern dance done to marching band music. It was disorienting for me. I am used to seeing a band play the field and entertain with music. This was more about movement and getting your ass across the field as fast as possible. More athletic than musical, the percussion section up front (consisting of what seemed to be a thousand marimbas, some bells, chimes, a huge ass bass drum or two and Christ, I think a toilet) carried what you would call the melody. If this was what I was going to sit through for four hours, I was in for a long night.
Ah, but it did get better. Like any competition, the best bands are held for the end. The entire championship is a three-day event that began Thursday with 22 bands. 4 were eliminated for Friday and finally, there were 12 left standing for the Saturday show. The Bluecoats, from Kent, Ohio, were next up. The theme of there show was “Criminal”. The costumes of the color guard were interesting, but I thought the music was “eh.” I was mo0re entertained by the three insane judges who ran on the field, through the band, as they performed. One guy wore a hat, another resembled Jeff Fischer (head coach of the Tennessee Titans) and there was a third guy who kind of slipped into the band and remained a mystery to me. He was very clever. At a certain point during each performance, Jeff Fischer ran across the field to judge the drum line. It was quite ridiculous and there was one or two times I wished one of the flag carriers have nailed the guy. Now that would have been something.
A brief intermission followed. Hurley and I went to the bathroom and he bought me a bottled water. Hurley nearly got into a fight with some prick that thought we cut in front of him. Man, these people could get mean. If you thought the San Diego Comic Con a couple of weeks ago was the biggest collection of nerds and geeks in the world, well… you’d still be right. But this crowd has to come in a close second. Actually, most in attendance were parents, alumni marchers, and freaks of nature that followed these bands around for two months. Wait, Hurley is one of those people. Okay, maybe not freaks. Unique? Maybe that’s a better definition.
We returned to our seats and waited for the next band. Fortunately we had running commentary from the guys sitting behind us. Throughout the course of the night, they debated the dynamics of the band and questioned the masculinity of the male color guard members. Finally, the Carolina Crow, from South Carolina took the field. I have to tell you, these guys were my favorite of the night. They played something that actually was music. Their theme was Triple Crown (as in the horse races). They had the good fortune of a cool breeze sending chills through the audience while they played Copland-esque melodies. And that’s what they played… a melody, not a bunch of random freaking notes while the marimbas drove you to the brink of insanity. Their performance also had the most heart. That’s what I liked best. Unfortunately, their soloists had several clinker notes, so I knew they would not win.
The Santa Clara, CA Vanguard was next. Couldn’t tell you what their show was about. Their drum line was excellent and mysterious, though. They all wore Calvary style hats with the brims turned low, concealing their eyes. A good portion of the crowd was dressed in the scarlet and green of the Vanguard. The Phantom Regiment of Rockford Illinois performed a show about flight and ended with the Firebird Suite. I loved their ending and the visuals were outstanding. A couple of their color guard ran across the field with drapes resembling wings flowing from their arms. Nicely done. Next, the Cavaliers of Rosemont, Illinois came out with a Billy Joel themes program. I suppose you could call it a Billy Joel themes program because it was Joel’s music, but damn, did they screw it up. I mean, they just overplayed everything and didn’t know when to shut down the drums. At one point, the band slowly marched toward us playing the beautiful “And So It Goes”. Yet, someone had the idea that the drum line should keep playing polyrhythmic sextuplets throughout the sequence. Shut the hell up! Let the melody wow the people. Make it a special moment for people like me! I was in the minority, though. The crowd ate it up.
Next were the Cadets of Allentown, PA. They were musically outstanding, but they thought it would be an innovative idea to let band members speak throughout the show, explaining their routine, as in “When I think of drum corps, I think of drums…. And horns…” And I think you shut fire the person who thought this was smart. For the first time, I was in the majority. I got the sense that the rest of the crowd was sick of the talking. Then again, most of these people had seen the same routine for three days in a row. Finally, the last band, the hometown favorites from Concord, CA, took the field. The Blue Devils have a shitload of power. They really now how to blow their horns. But with so many members of the percussion section on the side, things started to sound “splatty” by the end. Not that this mattered. They were precise and the crowd erupted at the end.
And then we waited.
After like, thirty more minutes, the results from Jeff Fischer, the hat dude and mystery man were tallied. While the Marine Corps Band performed, all of the competing bands lined up for the presentations of the awards. Luckily, Mrs. America and Mickey Mouse were also present, as were the cameras of ESPN, which plans to air the even in early September (my TiVo is already set). My Carolina favorites made it into the top 6, but they also won a nice award for innovation. The victors of the evening and the year were the Blue Devils from Concord. It wasn’t even close. The crowd went crazy. Some due began shouting to fans of other bands, “You thought you were going to win, but you didn’t. Know what that makes you? Losers!” Hey buddy, that haircut of yours went out when Vedder, Grohl and Cornell chopped off their locks. Know what that makes you? (Oh, and hey, it’s DCI, dude. Chill!)
After the Blue Devils received their gold medals, the other bands mingled and took pictures. Their summers were done. They would all go home and their separate ways. For some, it was their final year. They may never have an experience like this again. It was touching, until the announcer had to shoo these other bands away. The Blue Devils had earned an encore and this being Pasadena, I’m sure there was a sound ordinance that dictated no band music after 11 p.m. The Blue Devils played their award winning show again. The second time through their piece was more inspiring to watch. The players were looser and wore huge smiles on their faces. The pressure to perform for Jeff Fischer and his pals was lifted and they could finally enjoy what got them there in the first place: to play music.