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Off Beat Empire: Sophomore Season

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Welcome back Marching Bands

Central Michigan Chippewas v Purdue Boilermakers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Like tens of thousands of students returning to campus after a happy, relaxed summer, it’s time to shake off the cobwebs and get back into the groove of our weekly review of Big Ten Conference Marching Bands. As a refresher for some and an introduction for others, I started this column last year (with LincolnParkWildcat’s help) in order to shine a spotlight on the performances of the young men and women musicians who give much to entertain us at each football game. To briefly re-introduce myself, I am a former four-year member of the Northwestern University Marching Band who graduated in 1997. I played Alto Saxophone all four years, and had the excellent good fortune to be a part of the band when football was first invented and the ‘Cats won back-to-back conference championships (Rose Bowl!). I am not a journalist nor am I a music major. In fact, I haven’t picked up a saxophone in decades, so I am by no means an expert. However, I feel like I know enough to share a nugget or two as to how things come together and what particular bands do well or not so well. When I make mistakes, I encourage those who are more informed to share corrections in the comments.

What I try to do each week is to highlight one general topic related to marching band, and then provide video of each Marching Band’s halftime performance to the extent it is available. I do have a few biases as to what I consider to be “good” or “not as good” performances and I won’t be shy about sharing those comments, but generally speaking, all Bands put a lot of time and effort into their halftime and the last thing I’m going to do is use this as an opportunity to mock that hard work. As was discussed in more depth last year, not every Band has the same amount of time to prepare for each week (they might have had an extra week due to a bye, they might have just started classes, it might be midterms, etc.). As such, you will see significant differences between the quality of certain performances, ranging from Band Day (where you just put 5,000 local high school students with the band and try to find the brown note in “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) to 60+ set designs with multiple animated characters, intricate horn hits, LED lights, and smoke effects. Usually, bands will do one or two “cop out” performances, 2-4 average performances, and 1-3 intricate performances (which they will probably re-use for a road and / or Bowl game)... except Ohio State, who pretty much brings it every week.

So, this being my Sophomore year, I’m coming back with a little bit more knowledge about the Bands themselves and the nuances of writing about them. The inevitable truth that I learned last year is that it is very hard to share band performances if I’m not able to obtain video on them. Not only that, but it is really hard to share performances if they’re not uploaded on YouTube, which is one of the few video formats that plays nicely on SB Nation’s editor. There is a core group of Bands which does an excellent job recording and uploading video after just about every performance (sometimes with a bit of a delay), including the following:

  • University of Illinois (they even hired a production company to post video last year - really high quality stuff)
  • University of Michigan
  • Michigan State University
  • Northwestern University
  • Ohio State University
  • Penn State University

There is a group of schools that are good about posting video, but it shows up on a special website that doesn’t always play nice with SB Nation:

  • Indiana University
  • University of Minnesota

There is a group of schools who I can periodically get something good from, usually via a fan or sporadic posting by the University:

  • Purdue University (purduebandfan is a true archivist of all things All-American Band)
  • Rutgers University
  • University of Wisconsin

And then there is a group of schools that I struggle with (if anybody knows a good source for video that I’m somehow missing, let me know):

  • University of Iowa (had one show professionally recorded last year, then just disappeared for the rest of the season)
  • University of Nebraska (I get snippets every now-and-then, but very little)
  • University of Maryland (frustrating, because they posted all of last season just a few days ago, but nothing when I was writing last year)

If I’m not reviewing your favorite band, I promise, it’s because I couldn’t find video and not that I was trying to overlook anybody.

The other thing I learned last year is that I started running out of topics toward the end of the season. I’ve got a few ideas to start this year and I have some requests out to various bands for e-mail interviews as part of a “Get to Know a Band” segment, but for those of you who have any ideas, I’m all ears if you will share in the comments. I am also open to anybody who wants to write their own segment for a week, if you feel like giving it a try.

Halftime

This week we have a surprising amount of video for what is usually a blow-off week after band camp.

Michigan State

We’ll start with the Spartans, who performed a space-themed show for their first week. For those of you who read this column last year, you have seen me gush over MSU’s musicality on multiple occasions, and this show is no exception. The Spartans open strong with “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and then shift into the theme from the new Star Trek movies. Both tunes feature great, full brass hits with solid secondary horn lines to keep the momentum going forward. Maybe things fall apart a little bit before the Starfleet symbol, but the rest is Michigan State at its finest... clean, loud, and bold. We then get the ‘70’s glam rock pieces “Space Oddity” and “Rocket Man”, complete with an entertaining fire extinguisher lift-off drill. The show shifts to a constellation / cell phone flashlight park n’ bark rendition of Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars”, and then the Spartans bring us down for a Lunar landing to the music from “Apollo 11” (not sure if this is the HBO series or something else). Finally, the Spartan Band finishes with a rendition of Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” (and tiny bit of “Mars”) from his Planet series.

This was a really solid show for the first week of the season. The sound was fantastic, there was a lot of variety in the pieces being performed, and drill was entertaining, albeit a bit simple with several held formations for all of, or the majority of a particular song. Overall a very good performance.

Minnesota

If you can’t see a video embedded above, you can click this link (http://www.ummbvideo.com/newummbvideo/Videos/20180830_Halftime_Press_Box.mp4).

This week Minnesota gave us an entertaining list of pop hits under the theme “Magic and Illusion”. The band starts out with some moving block drill to Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic”, followed by some word drill and a large Ace of Diamonds to accompany Elvis’s “Viva Las Vegas”. We then get a Top Hat and entertaining Gopher nut version of the three-card Monty to the strains of “Right Before Your Eyes”. Finally, we get Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” followed by a stick figure carpet ride to, well, Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”.

Again, I’m a bit shocked that bands are performing as many numbers as they are given that the season just started and most schools haven’t had much time to put things together, yet. The show didn’t feature anything too fancy, but the whole thing held together well and I thought the Gopher nut shell game was a nice touch. The music seemed to be fairly clean throughout, although Minnesota never quite has the same level of big hits as some others in the conference.

Ohio State

If there is one truth when it comes to college bands, it is that that no matter what point of the season we are in, Ohio State will deliver an outstanding, innovative performance that includes excellent drill and great musicianship. Others can sometimes match or exceed their performance for a single show, but nobody does it over the course of an entire season like the Buckeye Band.

This week we are treated to a show featuring the music of Queen. The Band opens up with a bit of the percussion from “We Will Rock You” and transitions quickly to “Fat Bottomed Girls”. I just want to take a moment to highlight something that is very simple to design, yet executed extremely well by Ohio State around the 40 second mark... Note how the band transitions from a formless block to the word “Queen” in the span of three seconds and perfectly times their big music hit to start the instant that the formation comes together. This is exactly what every marching band wants to do with their drill when making a big hit - make their show musically and visually snap together simultaneously (not that you have to stop marching like Ohio State did - it’s really just about the shape arriving at the same time as the big brass lick). Some succeed, many don’t, and a few don’t even try and instead will just march casually to their shape during the music. However, when I say really good drill, this is part of what I am looking for... sudden forms that visually match what is going on with the music. Of course, one other part of good drill is playing around with geometry (pinwheels, inverting lines, inverting other other geometrical shapes, doing block pass-throughs, line pass-throughs, etc.), or basically everything that Ohio State does up until the 2 minute mark. The final part of great drill is telling a story with a recognizable shape, which they accomplish toward the end of the song with a Buckeye Freddie Mercury. I, for one am glad that we were not treated to a “Fat Bottom” as part of the drill, but if we had been, I assume it would have had a Michigan tattoo.

For the rest of the show, we get a transition to “Bicycle Race”, replete with an actual stick-figure bicycle race as part of the drill. I do have to admit that I don’t think the music held together up to Buckeye standards during this section... the music just seemed to fall a little bit out of sync and the sound wasn’t quite as clean as the opener. Next came a rarity for OSU, a full song of park n’ bark accompanied by electronic instrumentation to the tune of “A Crazy Thing Called Love”. The sound was very good and the instrumentation seemed to be well-balanced relative to the Band (which is a lot harder to do than you might think), with a couple of particularly good guitar licks mixed in. However, it’s just weird to see OSU remain still for an entire song. Whatever motion was lacking in this segment, OSU more than make up for with a frantic “Bohemian Rhapsody” finale. Outstanding drill, good musicality, but I wish that the company fronts (when a large portion of the band forms up into a single horizontal line) had cleaner, louder hits to go with it. Still, just an outstanding show and a great start to the year for the Buckeyes.

Penn State

For their first show of the season, the Blue Band treated us to a trio of songs recorded at one point by the great jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald. From the get go we are given a rendition of Gerschwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. I have to say that I greatly enjoyed the musicianship on display throughout this piece, which exhibited a nice, full, big band sound that was just dirty enough at the right moments to make the jazz come through. However, it is funny to compare and contrast this performance to Ella’s much slower and more mellow rendition, which is fantastic in its own right, but would have taken the Blue Band about an hour to complete! Drill was pretty good, utilizing the full breadth of the field on a few occasions (and it’s impressive that the sound stayed cohesive considering how far spread apart the instruments were at times). The second piece, “That Old Black Magic”, “featured” the baton twirler and color guard, which is a fancy way of saying that the Band took a break from drill (a lot of bands take it easy on one of their middle pieces, particularly early in the year). Finally, the Blue Band concluded with “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing”. Again, the sound was absolutely fantastic... clean, cohesive, and a nice little big jazz bite throughout. However, the drill featuring inter-meshing triangles just seemed to take too long to develop and was a bit of a visual let-down relative to what was happening with the music. It was still a really nice opening to the season for the Blue Band, and I remain impressed with the quality of all of these shows given how early in the season we are.

Purdue

Well, you can tell by the way they use their walk, AAMB’s a marching man (and woman), no time to talk. Music loud and spit valves warm, they’ve been kicked around since the day they were born (by Jeremy Larkin, for 143 yards and 2 TD’s... What do you mean I should talk about this Rondale Moore person?).

Needless to say, this week brings us the All-American Marching Band’s take on disco. They open with Earth Wind & Fire’s “Let’s Groove”, which was a really nice combination of clean sound and near-continuous drill culminating in a platform shoe. There is much to commend in this performance... everything is just so clean throughout it almost feels like the band is in mid-season form rather than their first game in August. They then shift into Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”. OK, I admit it, when in the right mood I love me some Daft Punk... everything from “Around the World” to the “Tron Legacy” soundtrack, but I never really expected anybody to arrange it into a marching band piece (although now that I’ve heard Purdue play it, I realize that NUMB’s basketball band also has an arrangement - I just never put two-and-two together). Kudos to AAMB for going there, but major demerits to an engineering school for not being able to incorporate some of the electronic, auto-tune funk of the original (or robot helmets, for that matter). It’s hard to see the drill given the zoom, but it looks like not too much for this tune. We then get what is always a crowd favorite with the Village People’s “YMCA”. Finally, AAMB closes with “Disco Inferno”, complete with snazzy 70’s dance moves. This was a complete show. It won’t be the hardest one that they do all year, but it was entertaining and very well executed throughout. Now, time to get working on those electronics for “Bigger, Harder, Faster, Stronger”...

As always, thanks to Purduebandfan for posting the video.

Wisconsin

Thanks to a fan, we have a bit of video on Wisconsin this week as well. Ah, Wisconsin... Wisconsin... it’s been a year... what should we say about you? If you’re new to this column or Wisconsin in general, you’ll notice that they do things a bit differently. Wisconsin is all about, i) being big, ii) being loud, iii) showing us that they can do calisthenics in place with high steps and related lower-leg dance moves, iv) designing their entire drill between being on a yard line or halfway between, and v) for the love of God, DON’T MAKE A CURVE! All of this can be good, and I’ve met my fair share of Badgers who would tell you that the Wisconsin Marching Band is the best in the country, and it’s not even close. They would be wrong, of course, but there is something to be said about doing what your fans love. It’s also very old-school... this is what a lot of bands would have been trying to do in the early days of marching band and a lot of schools have a similar style for their pregame.

What’s wrong with it? Well, hold something up to your mouth, then run in place and tell me what happens. Yeah, it bounces around, a lot. Do you know what’s very important to play a brass or woodwind instrument well? You got it... a nice smooth connection between your mouthpiece and mouth that doesn’t bounce around a lot. How does Wisconsin make it work? Well, they play a lot of “punchy” tunes as opposed to flowing melodies, and they do a lot of marching in place, where it is easier to maintain upper body control. Do I like it? No, I think the drill is very boring and you miss something when you can’t generate the contrast between melody and the big hits, but like I said, their fans like what they do and ultimately that is what is important.

Anyway, for the first week of the year, Wisconsin gives us a variety of tunes from the group Three Dog Night, split into two arrangements of three songs apiece. First up, we have “Joy to the World” followed by “One is the Loneliest Number” and finishing with “Old-Fashioned Love Song”. The second arrangement starts with “Black and White”, goes on to “Shambala”, and ends with “Never Been to Spain”. Overall, I have to admit that Wisconsin sounded fairly good relative to what I’m used to. Cohesion broke apart whenever most of the formations were in motion, but the park n’ bark (or jog in place n’ bark) sounded pretty good. They also probably burned off 1,000 calories and at least a quart of water in the form of sweat during that performance. Drill... well... it was big... and on a yard or in-between, and thank God that the closest they came to a curve was a bit of the drum section. Seriously, I don’t know what would happen if they actually did do a curve... it might be a sign of the Apocalypse or something.

Others

Northwestern and Indiana were on the road and Nebraska was rained out. Michigan did travel and do pregame at Notre Dame, but I don’t know if they performed a halftime show or not. I don’t know if Iowa, Rutgers, Illinois, or Maryland were even in action this week or not, but will post a catch-up show if / when it becomes available.

Conclusion

It’s good to be back and I hope this was a decent refresher as to what this column is about. I need ideas for the year... anything you guys have or want, please let me know. With regard to the performances that were on video, the Spartans performance was other-worldly, Minnesota conjured up an entertaining show, Ohio State came through under pressure, the Blue Band raised a spat to scat, the All-American Marching Band hustled their way across the field, and Wisconsin showed us that their membership is nowhere close to the loneliest number.

Most importantly, what I learned this week is that I don’t know Queen’s music anywhere close to as well as I thought I did. I had no clue they had a song called “Fat Bottomed Girls” (or an album, for that matter), but you have to love the genius of Freddie and Company.