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Off Beat Empire: The End of an Era at Wisconsin

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And Time for a Change...

Rose Bowl Game - Wisconsin v TCU Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

This year, on November 24th, two things will happen in Camp Randall. First, the Wisconsin Badgers will once again claim Paul Bunyan’s Axe - a trophy that they have held so long that they should perhaps consider loaning it to a Minneapolis museum to remind Gophers what it looks like. Second, Director Michael Leckrone will stop down following a 50-year career as the Director of the Badger Marching Band.

Growing up in Indiana and an alumnus of Butler University, Mr. Leckrone first took over the reins of the Wisconsin Marching Band in 1969. For his first 24 years prior to Barry Alvarez’s squad finally breaking through in 1993, Mr. Leckrone needed to find new and innovative ways to entertain a Camp Randall crowd that witnessed only six winning seasons. Entertain he did, through a combination of showmanship, recruiting, and the honing and enhancement of long-time traditions. At various times, Director Leckrone was known for wild antics, including riding an Elephant and a Camel onto the field. He took a group of 96 men up to what is now one of the largest bands in the conference at ~300. He popularized the post-game show, “the Fifth Quarter” and introduced a wild Spring Concert that today attracts enough of a crowd to fill the Kohl’s Center. Through his arrangements, he is credited with honing long-time pieces such as “On Wisconsin!” and “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” into the recognizable stadium staples that they are today. He also introduced the high intensity run-on entrance by the band, and pioneered what is now Wisconsin’s trademark “stop-at-the-top” step, designed to add drama, motion, and energy (and, secondarily, to melt off all of those beer and cheese calories that would otherwise accrue to the Badgers).

Mr. Leckrone is also known for his humor and personal touch. He always stated that it was his goal to get to know everybody within the Marching Band by their name. Long before Iowa’s wave, the Badgers would stop and serenade the children’s ward at the University hospital. Most amusing to me in light of the antics of the Badger student section, Mr. Leckrone is known to use a “swear jar”. Over his long and distinguished career at Wisconsin, he has gotten to know tens of thousands of students, and I’m sure that he has had a positive impact on almost all of them. Congratulations to Mr. Leckrone on a long and distinguished career, and I hope that he will enjoy a fruitful and fulfilling retirement.

Now that all of that is said.... Wisconsin, it’s time for some changes.

The Badgers were kind enough to visit Ryan Field this year. I pretty much knew what to expect - they outnumbered NUMB by ~ 3:1 and for the average non-musical fan watching them take the field, they heard a very loud band that generated a ton of motion, even though they really weren’t going anywhere. For those who don’t know much better, it was an entertaining show - a lot of pomp and circumstance and it definitely felt like a traditional, boisterous performance.

However, for those of us who do know a few tricks of the trade and how to blow a few notes on the horn, I started getting e-mails like these from a fellow OTE writer who I won’t name, but he’s from Minnesota and likes to swear a lot...

If you say one positive word on this show I nuke the article. They fucking massacred Benny Goodman, which is bad enough, and the rest was shit. Blow them the fuck up. This is fucking awful.

That finale...holy fuck them. Awful. WOW YOU PLAY LOUD.

Only redeeming quality is they didn’t play their overrated fight song.

And that’s the problem. Wisconsin you’ve traded your step for music, and because your mouthpiece is bouncing around your mouth for the entire show, you sound absolutely awful. You can’t carry a melody while you’re marching. You can’t generate any contrast in volume. There is no subtlety to your performance. There is no sharp and clear rhythm. There is no play between melody, bass, and counter-melody. As long as you keep up that step, everything you perform, from Latin Music to Classical to Broadway sounds like the same loud, punchy march. You are the Cousin Orson of Marching Band, smashing beetles (literally when you are playing a Beatles themed show).

Even then, it might be worth it if you were doing something fantastic on the field, but your drill has to be something more than variation on a block of different sizes. Why can’t you do a shape? Why can’t you do a curve? Why can’t you even do a few decent meshes, or pinwheels? I mean, most junior highs are capable of performing more complex sets than what the Badgers continually put on the field. Take away the step and other lower-body antics, and most high school bands would laugh at what passes for drill in Madison. I don’t know why this is considered acceptable at the college level.

So, Badgers... do you want to be good? And I mean real good, respect of your peers good, and not “good enough to fool the average Wisconsinite”? If so, now is the time to make a clean break. Acknowledge and respect what Mr. Leckrone brought to the field during his era. Certainly carry on the fine traditions of the Fifth Quarter, the stand music, and the pre-game. Never forget the joy, personality, and mentor-ship that he brought each-and-every day over his proud 50 year career. However, let that era of halftime performances pass. At least try and find a happy medium with what is going on throughout the rest of the conference. You work too hard and are too talented to butcher music and drill the way that you do - it’s time to show us something more and this is the perfect opportunity to make the change.

Poll

Wisconsin’s Future

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Screw you GTom and your drunken friend... the Badger Band is awesome (I clearly don’t understand music)
    (25 votes)
  • 32%
    Yeah, Badgers, it’s time
    (35 votes)
  • 43%
    Maybe if they added more baton twirlers, it would be better?
    (47 votes)
107 votes total Vote Now

Halftime

This week we have video from Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, OSU, PSU, and Purdue.

Illinois

For this week, the Marching Illini brought us a combination of Americana, and proof that the fathers of Illinois are good sports and love their children. For the opening, the Illini gave us a performance of an arrangement apparently titled “An American Celebration”, which mostly included music from “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee Doodle”. As is always the case with the Illini, everything looks and sounds crisp and clean and I enjoyed the fact that when they moved to flag shape to the side, they played around with the curves to get the waving effect. It was a nice little touch to the drill that looked good. Next, we got a performance of “Salute to the Services”, which along with the “Thriller” dance somewhere around Halloween, is pretty much a guaranteed performance near Veteran’s Day at least once during a band member’s career (I somehow failed to perform either during my marching days - I feel like a marching unicorn). The best part about comparing bands in “Salute to the Services” is which shapes they are going to perform for each branch of the military. In the case of Illinois, we get an Army Tank, Marine Eagle, Navy Aircraft Carrier, Air Force Jet (complete with fire extinguisher engine exhaust), and Coast Guard ship, all culminating in “American the Beautiful” with some nice star and ribbon visuals. Again, all were done well and there was some nice sound coming from the band.

The Illini then shifted to a “Dads” formation, and brought out their fathers to perform a little choreographed dance to segments of “Jaws”, “What is Love”, and “New York, New York” (complete with Da’ Kick Line). The Dads segment cracks me up every time I see it, and as far as I know, the Illini are the only ones in the B1G to do something like this. Kudos to them for showing up for their kids... I was with my own Dad this weekend and he had some struggles to deal with, so my word of advice to those band members is enjoy the time you have with your fathers in good health whenever you can. Finally, the Illini finished with their traditional Three-in-One performance. Although the overall performance was relatively simple, this was a lot to pack into one halftime and the Illini looked good doing it.

Maryland

For their pre-Halloween show versus the Illini, the Maryland Terps gave us a rendition of spooky-themed songs before being joined by a few locals for their Band Day performance. For the opener, the Mighty Sound of Maryland performed “Night on Bald Mountain” by Mussorgsky. I am partial to good classical music in Marching Band, because in most cases the complexity and interplay between the instrumentation has already been considered by the composer and it’s just a matter of adapting parts from orchestra instruments to band instruments. In the case of “Night on Bald Mountain”, you also have a piece that shifts rapidly between low voices, trumpets, horns, and woodwinds / strings, with every portion of the ensemble playing an important role in making the finished product sound good. That complexity and give-and-take really came through via the solid musicianship of Maryland’s band - the sound was just excellent... clean... full... cohesive (for the most part - a few moments maybe got a bit lost)... with some really nice contrast in volume where appropriate. All of this was paired with some nice drill - I liked the early Ghost shape in particular.

Next up came a AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”, which mostly (but not entirely) was focused on Maryland’s dance squad. I do appreciate that the band, while carving out plenty of space for the ladies, did not go into pure park n’ bark mode. Music was a bit rough early... there was some significant loss of cohesion during the main verse, but once the chorus hit everything pulled together and the band sounded good. For the final drill segment, the Mighty Sound of Maryland performed “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult. Both the drill and sound for this piece were very good. However, and I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but in all honesty... it needed more cowbell. The Mighty Sound of Maryland then invited local high school students to join them in a park n’ bark rendition of “Time Warp” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. All-around, it was a nice performance by the Terps and many thanks to Maryland for not making me write another article about the “Thriller” dance.

Michigan and Penn State

For their match-up last weekend, the Wolverine Marching Band and Penn State Blue Band joined forces to bring together a “Game of Thrones” show. First, a couple of things about bands playing together... it’s not easy to do. Band is about timing and synchronicity, and unless you are able to spend extensive time practicing together (which I guaranty Michigan and Penn State did not do - they probably only rehearsed together on Saturday morning and perhaps Friday night), it’s really tough to take your half of the performance and make it come together well with the other ensemble’s performance. As a result, most bands will play their own 4-5 minute drill, then combine with the other group for a song or two, usually in a park n’ bark formation.

Not here - nobody played it safe. Considering the logistics involved and the number of band members on the field at the same time, this was an awesome combination of two already large groups into something that looked at sounded unified and fantastic. Music included everything from the opening theme to “Rains of Castamere” to what I believe was the concluding music to Season 6. The opening included a nice central rotating Sun, and the gradual inclusion of the rotating circles to mimic the animation of the opening sequence was a really nice touch. I’ve heard other bands try to do the opening before, and because cellos seem to be a difficult instrument to replicate in Marching Band, things always end up sounding either overly bright or overly heavy and ponderous. In this case, the bands seem to keep both the gloom and energy through the majority of the main theme, which is a nice contrast to the big hits when they come later in the tune.

With regard to the rest of the show, it’s tough for me to identify specific songs other than the “Rains of Castamere”, but the sound is clear throughout and whoever did the drill did an outstanding job. Little touches like at the three minute mark where the two blocks rapidly “melt away” into two other blocks look and feel different and were extremely well executed. The bands effectively use the entire field throughout the drill, and that is probably the biggest dragon you will see for some time. The Guard was also well-integrated for key portions of the show rather than being shunted to the side. Granted, there were still plenty of pauses in the performance, but they were brief and that’s almost unavoidable when you have such a large group on the field.

Bravo to both groups - you looked and sounded great together.

Ohio State

For the game against Nebraska, Ohio State performed a number of different selections somehow tied to fairy tales. Selections included, in order, Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, “When Will My Life Begin” from Tangled, portions of Engelbert Humperdink’s “Hansel & Gretel” (I believe, I’m not entirely sure on this one), “Friends on the Other Side” from Princess & the Frog, Sleeping Beauty’s “Once Upon a Dream”, and finally the opening from “Game of Thrones”. Once again, the Buckeye Band puts on a spectacular display of animation drill... everything from a wolf blowing a house down to climbing hair to the witch going in the oven to flying dragons (those flame effects are just awesome). Everything drill-wise is just so smooth... so exact... so seemingly effortless. The music... eh... it’s good. I think there was a bad microphone placement in this video where we ended up with far too much trumpet in front. It probably would have sounded much better live and listening to the totality of the show, but that trumpet is really drowning out some of the richer, deeper instruments. It certainly sounds very clean and concise, it just didn’t sound very full (and again, this could be 100% the microphone in this instance). That said, I really liked the variety between the classical “Swan Lake” to the jazzy “Friends on the Other Side” and a whole mix of styles between. This show hit a lot of different visual and musical elements and there’s just a ton to unpack from what the Buckeyes put on the field.

The Buckeye band ended their show by paying brief tribute to Tyler Butterfield, a 20-year old Nebraska trumpet player who was killed in a car crash on October 28th. Needless to say, his family, friends, and the Cornhusker Marching Band have our deepest sympathies.

Penn State

In addition to the joint effort with Michigan posted above, Penn State also posted video this week for their Oct. 13th Homecoming show versus MSU. Tunes performed by the current version of the band celebrated women and included Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” and Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary”. I have to say that this year’s epiphany for me has been just how good the Blue Band sounds. Don’t get me wrong, they sounded pretty good last year as well, but this year I just seem to be hearing a lot of complexity in their arrangements, a lot of very clean licks from various instrumentation groups, and some really solid, full big hits. They sound great. Drill is not quite as strong. The opening sets were decent and were based mostly on a bit of abstract, 90 and 45 degree geometry. However, “Proud Mary” was a full park n’ bark piece, which seems like a bit of a cop-out if you’re only performing two tunes and are coming off of a bye week. The Blue Band was then replaced by alums to perform Tom Jones “She’s a Lady” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”. I need to take it easy on the alumni... I just literally pulled my saxophone out for the first time in ~20 years to show my nieces (and was very surprised that I could play it reasonably well), but I have commented for every band this year that people can’t seem to manage through a double-tonguing section of “Respect”, and the Penn State alums are no exception. Finally, the current band joined the alums in performing what is apparently a traditional Homecoming Finale, although I don’t know anything about what it is called or its significance.

Purdue

For the game against Iowa on November, the All-American Marching Band performed a show intended to honor doctors, including Purdue’s own Dr. Sarah Sayger (who I guess directly supports the Marching Band in some capacity). Just like the football team, AAMB seems to keep getting better and better every time I hear them this year, and their trumpets absolutely blew my socks off with their opener (no pun intended), “Open Up Wide” from Chase. Man... those trumpet licks are something special and executed beautifully. They’re completely clean, completely in sync, perfectly in tune... just an awesome job being done by the entire section. Of course, between the trumpet hits, you have a similar quality counter from the horns and lower voices which makes it all work extremely well. Drill for the first piece was also fantastic - very active with smooth transitions and good use of the entire field, ending on a nice thermometer animation. Next, we got the park n’ bark rendition of Little Willie John’s “Fever”, including a really nice trombone solo up front and a focus on the dance squad. The whole tune had a fantastic jazz / laid-back swing sound. Then came a bit of Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” to a cute, less smiley face than before. The tune was fun, but pretty short and I’m not entirely sure why it was thrown in, especially if they weren’t going to do much drill to it (the cowbell seemed about right). Finally, Purdue ended with the traditional spiritual “Dem Bones” (aka “Dry Bones” or “The Bone Song”) originally composed by James Weldon Johnson. The music is once again, absolutely fantastic, but I don’t mind admitting that the moving skeleton kind of creeped me out... it was like half skeleton, half insect and didn’t quite look anatomically correct, even when it went together. Anyway, outstanding musicianship on the part of the AAMB - this whole show sounded very impressive.

Conclusion

Congratulations and good luck to Mr. Leckrone in retirement, but the Badgers should give some thought to making some changes in order to step up the quality of their halftime shows. Illinois Dads showed they care, Maryland spent a night on Bald Mountain, Michigan and Penn State allied to for an attempt at the Iron Throne, Ohio State lived happily ever after, Penn State honored strong women, and Purdue rattled our bones with some excellent musicianship.

As much as I am impressed by Purdue’s rendition of “Open Up Wide”, I had no idea that there was this kind of horn performance out there to base it on...