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Off Beat Empire: Back for More

Your Source for all things Baton Twirling

Arkansas State v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Welcome Back

So, Northwestern has once again lost a non-conference game during a warm month, which can only mean that it is the start of another fine year of one of the best traditions of college football, the Cheerleaders Mascots Drunken Student Section Marching Bands!

Before we jump in too far this year, I just want to give a brief recap of what we do for those who are new to this column and outline some changes that you will be seeing during this season’s iteration of Off Beat Empire:

  • This column is dedicated to the traditions, musicianship, pomp, and mostly hard work of Big Ten Conference Marching Bands.
  • I myself am a former member of Northwestern University’s Marching Band from the mid-’90’s where I played Alto Saxophone for all four years.
  • I am not a music major, nor have I had anything to do with Marching Bands since I graduated. I am not a journalist. I don’t make any money from this column. I basically got talked into doing this by Lincoln Park Wildcat and MN Wildcat, and have enjoyed it enough to continue working on it, but I am by no means an expert or authority when it comes to music. This is basically... just... like... my opinion... man (and I very much want to hear different opinions from others - nobody is ever going to offend me if they point out mistakes or want to raise a different point-of-view).
  • Despite the fact that I am as snarky as anyone who you will ever meet, I will generally do my best to not be overly critical of groups that take the field. I’m not here to rip on bands. Those young people and the band staffs invest way too much time and effort to perform for our enjoyment for me to turn this column into anything that is intended to denigrate a particular group. Besides, for the most part, we are very spoiled as a conference by some of the best musical ensembles in the country, and every band that I have had the pleasure of reviewing over the past few years has done something special and noteworthy that has added to pageantry of the conference as a whole.
  • That said, I do have personal preferences and biases that I will comment on. For example, people who have read this column know that I haven’t historically been a fan of what Wisconsin’s marching step does to their musicianship. Also, last year’s comments on Baton Twirlers inspired a reaction that was epic and absolutely hilarious ( and I promise that I’m not actually trying to offend anyone, but if I think a Band Director or group took an easy way out or does something that doesn’t quite work, I’ll comment on it. Still, as I said above... I’m a musical nobody with a keyboard who got talked into writing a column. If you don’t agree with me or think I’m being too harsh, please feel free to leave a comment or even write your own response (FanPost or let me know that you would like to do your own weekly column).
  • This is a niche column. I will never match the audience or comments of the Power Poll, but enough people seem to like it that I’ll keep writing it. If you are interested, don’t feel like you need to have been in Band to share your opinion. Let us know what you like or dislike as a fan, and don’t be shy about sharing traditions about your school that we might have missed.
  • Generally speaking, I have historically tried to cover one topic and then reviewed all halftime shows for which I was able to obtain video. I can’t always do that anymore... it just takes too much time to write and review all the bands and I’m running out of topics to cover. This year, I’m going to focus more of the halftime reviews on the shows that I thought were noteworthy. I’ll still try and embed or link to as many shows as I can so that everybody can at least watch the shows for themselves without searching the net, but I’m not going to go in depth on every show. What do I consider noteworthy? Generally, really good musicianship and / or drill where there are a high number of sets and not so much park n’ bark (or high step n’ bark in the case of certain bands).
  • I am completely at the mercy of what each Band chooses to post for public review. Many have dedicated YouTube channels where shows are posted within a day of performance. Some bands won’t post a show for weeks, or even until the season has ended. Some bands have web sites that don’t play well with SB Nation. I try and work with what I have, but sometimes the best I can do is share a 20-second snippet that a fan posted from the upper deck. For fair warning, I have historically struggled mightily to get shows for Nebraska and Iowa (although Iowa got a YouTube channel this year! Way to go, Hawks). Purdue is hit-or-miss, but they have a super fan who tends to get recordings posted online. The best sites have historically been MSU, Illinois, PSU, and OSU. Most of the rest do a reasonably good job posting, but sometimes there will be delays and you’ll get three or four shows at once.
  • I’m also at the mercy of the quality of the microphone. There are some shows that you might swear sounded like the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra when played live, but because the microphone ended up in front of a grossly out-of-tune piccolo, the recording might sound like garbage. Wind can also wreak havoc on a traditional performance.
  • There is nothing that I love more than having people (and especially current or former Band members from other schools) who are willing to share their traditions. I only know what I have learned first hand and what I can (in very limited time) research on the internet. Last year, StewartRL was kind enough to provide an article outlining his experience with the Gophers. If anybody else is interested in doing something similar, or if one of you just wants to take a crack at writing the article for a week, you’ll earn my never-ending gratitude. Like I said before, these articles take a lot of time to write, and any help I can get is appreciated.

I’m only really aware of one piece of significant news entering the season, which is that we have one new Marching Band Director entering the fray in the form of Corey Pompey ( Mr. Pompey takes over the baton from Mike Leckrone’s extraordinary 50-year run at the helm of the Badgers, and comes to Wisconsin via a similar one-year Athletic Band Director position at the University of Nevada at Reno. Mr. Pompey was also previously a member of the staff for the Blue Band at Penn State, and his education roots are both at Alabama and Texas. We wish Director Pompey success and happiness in his new role. I’m not aware of any other changes at the Director position, but it should be noted that a lot of Directors in the conference have only been at their role for 1-5 years.


Which group should we try and get riled up this year?

This poll is closed

  • 12%
    Stick with what you know: The Twirlers
    (14 votes)
  • 25%
    Marching Xylophones: Bonus hatred for use by Notre Dame
    (29 votes)
  • 7%
    Marching Bagpipes
    (8 votes)
  • 13%
    Nebraska’s (former) Geography Department
    (15 votes)
  • 41%
    The Entire Stanford Band
    (46 votes)
112 votes total Vote Now


So, again I’m going to do something a bit different this year and really feature what I think are the three best halftime shows I was able to get video on, maybe an honorable mention or two, and then provide more limited commentary on other halftime performances. It just takes a long time to review everyone’s performance in detail - sometimes it can take me a half hour just to figure out the playlist because I can’t hear the PA announcer clearly - and I really can’t afford to keep putting that much time into writing these things. That means that I’m picking favorites, but hey... this is OTE where we love to argue about rankings, so that’s probably going to end up being a feature and not a bug. That said, I want to emphasize that i) Bands have to budget their time and resources during a year and not every show is going to be their best... which is OK... there’s no shame in taking an easy week because your students have midterms or you’re on your fourth week in a row and just need a break and ii) our bands are really good, and even those that I don’t place toward the top are usually turning in very solid performances.

Aside from that, I just want to say that the early year is notorious for students just getting back on campus and bands taking it easy as people (especially Freshman) are just getting familiar with a practice schedule and everything else they need to learn. I expected most of these shows to be very simple, but I was wrong. A lot of bands clearly put in early work this year and the level of quality for some of the early shows is quite high. I’m very impressed with all of the groups that we’re going to feature today.

Win: Michigan State Cartoon Classics (Sept. 7th)

For the game against WMU, the Spartans featured themes from Inspector Gadget, Kim Possible, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (for those of you who compared the uniforms to the sewer “ooze”), Family Guy, Jetsons, Flinstones, Simpsons, and the Loony Tunes close. Why do I think that the Spartans are the best? Because they sound absolutely awesome. The Spartans are just incredibly clean while maintaining this big full sound throughout their performance. The melodies are spot on, the counter-melodies are clear and driving, and the ensemble just does such a great job handing off the spotlight between the different instrumentation groups. The arrangements are great... they stick true to the source material and do a great job featuring the full spectrum of the ensemble. The drill isn’t really all that difficult, but it has some crowd-pleasing moments with shapes of Stewie from Family Guy, Lisa Simpson, the Jetsons car, etc. Overall, they work through a respectable amount of sets, and while there really isn’t the transition drill that we will see from Ohio State, it’s all clean and all well-timed to what is going on in the music. This is a top-notch Band and I’m really hoping that they will come to Evanston on the 21st so I can hear them live (probably not, but I can dream). One of these years, I’m just going to visit East Lansing to see them perform.

Place: Ohio State Salute to Ohio (Sept. 7th)

In their game against Cincinnati, the Buckeye Band chose to feature music written and performed by Ohioans, including Ziggy Modeliste’s “Let’s Get Fired Up”, the O’Jays “Love Train” and “For the Love of Money”, John Legend’s “All of Me”, and then a couple of other tunes that try as I might, I cannot figure out what they are. Let me start by saying that, while I kind of like the O’Jays, I’m getting the impression that Ohio maybe isn’t quite up to the standards of Motown, or the Mississippi Delta, or Chicago’s old Blues scene. That said, what OSU does extremely well in this performance is i) the drill and ii) they get a really nice funk going on when the tunes call for it. The drill uses a lot of simple repetition and transition tricks, but it looks absolutely beautiful and is perfectly executed. As is usually the case, OSU goes through about 40-50 sets over the course of the performance, whereas MSU in the show above maybe does 20? 25? And, to top it off, OSU uses the transition to do something interesting as opposed to just heading to their next shape. The sound is great. I absolutely love the base Tuba line in For the Love of Money (brief as it might be), and the sound is clean and coherent throughout with some nice hits. There is an outstanding saxophone solo from the center stage band at around the seven minute mark and similarly there was a great trumpet lick toward the beginning of the performance. There are some really nice hits throughout and particularly some great trumpet melodies, but as great as the musicianship is, it just doesn’t seem to play together quite as nice as the MSU performance above. Still, this is a fantastic performance from one of the most consistently outstanding ensembles in the conference.

Show: Michigan Summer of 1969 (Aug. 31st)

This was a bit of a tough call, as there were some other performances that seemed worthy of the three-spot, but at the end of the day I felt like I needed to give the nod to the Wolverines. Music featured included Jimmy Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and “Fire”, Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and “Proud Mary”, the Beatles “Come Together” and “Octopus’s Garden”, and finally “The Age of Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In” from Hair. What do the Wolverines do great? They’re fantastically clean in their music and drill. Everything that they play is clear, precise, and well-balanced. What did they do wrong? Well... this is going to be a theme for several performances today, but when you’re doing rock you need a bit of an edge... a bit of dirty... a bit of funk. Jefferson Airplane doesn’t work as a smooth melody... you need Grace Slick’s dirty, acid-tripped, half-showered crunchy hippy voice to make it sound just weird enough to be different. It’s really hard to do and a lot of Bands struggle to replicate what makes rock, rock. I’ve also got a bit of a bone to pick on “Proud Mary”... you’re rolling, roollliiinng, roollliinng on a river, not powering up the throttle - it’s just a bit too fast and a bit too eager - the song needs to relax a bit. Still, the Wolverines play an extensive set, the arrangements show off the full scope of what the ensemble can do, and there are a very reasonable number of sets that are well-executed. I personally love the Octopus. This was also Michigan’s first performance of the season, and bravo to them to be able to get everybody able to execute at a high level on the first show.

Honorable Mentions

Michigan State Take Flight (Aug. 30th)

Various rock tunes that involve a word or two in the title referencing flight plus a classical finish to Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite Finale. Beautiful clean sound throughout and all of the instrumentation interplay I talked about above, but similar to the Michigan comment, it’s all just a bit too clean. For example, “Fly like an Eagle” is technically correct, but just doesn’t have that edge that you need for a good rock performance. Still, very good full sound and good drill make this a performance to be proud of.

Ohio State Alumni Band Sesquicentennial

Various traditional songs performed with the alumni band to celebrate the University’s 150th anniversary. There’s a lot of content and it sounds pretty good with the addition of hundreds. Some of the drill isn’t too shabby. That said, there are various parts that feel shoe-horned to fit the alumni band and a lot of time is spent on script Ohio (which I know Ohioans love, but for the rest of us, it’s just kind of a repeat of pre-game). Still, it’s OSU and it’s very good and worthy of the the Honorable Mention.

Maryland 1969 Celebrating 50 Years of Hits (Aug. 31st)

Various rock tunes ranging from the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” to the Jackson 5’s “I want you Back” to CCR’s “Proud Mary”. I just thought that the Mighty Sound of Maryland brought some good musicianship to this performance. They’re not quite as big or full as some of the bigger bands like Michigan State or Michigan, but they have a nice sound and some really nice transitions between the different instrumentation groups. They also seemed to do a descent job of bringing funk and an edge to where it was called for in the performance. Drill was more-than-reasonable, particularly for a first game of the season. Like Michigan, I felt they drove “Proud Mary” a bit harder than it should be (I’m kind of a CCR fan, so maybe that bugs me more than other tunes), but I just felt that this was a solid performance throughout that deserved some recognition.

Everything Else

Again, I want to emphasize that I think every group did great this week, especially for an early performance. I enjoyed all of these shows, even if they’re not featured as highly as some of the others.

Illinois Greatest Showman and Dumbo (Aug. 31st)

Very clean performance in terms of both drill and musicianship. The non Three-in-One portion was abbreviated, which is why I didn’t place them higher (correctly or incorrectly, I don’t give quite as much credit to the Three-in-One as I might give to another band that performs a full, unique halftime show), but this is a very good group that consistently performs at a high level.

Iowa!!! Motown (Sept. 7th)

I’m just ecstatic that the Hawkeyes now have a YouTube channel and we will be able to see more of them. This is a solid performance and pretty much what I would expect for most bands early in the year - not too much of a challenge music or drill-wise, but reasonably well executed.

Michigan D-Day from the Homefront (Sept. 7th)

A mix of various 40’s big band and patriotic songs, plus Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Not particularly difficult drill. On the one hand, I want to compliment Michigan’s clean musicianship. However, Appalachian Spring is one of my favorite orchestral pieces, and I just have to say that taking it up-tempo to suit an energetic marching band piece is musical murder. It’s like when bands try to do Auch Sprach Zarathustra in an up-beat driving arrangement (which Northwestern was guilty of when I was part of NUMB)... it’s just awful... that’s not what the piece is supposed to be. So, Michigan... bad idea that was well-executed.

Minnesota Fandom Feud (Aug. 29th)

Minnesota also has a brand new YouTube channel! I used to have to embed from this strange one-off site, and sometimes it stuck in the article, but most times it would drop. This just makes life so much easier for me... Anyway, a bunch of movie themes. It’s a fairly lengthy set for the first show of the year and there’s some nice musical range, but it isn’t quite as clear and clean as some other groups. Still, a nice show with a lot for fans to enjoy.

Rutgers Various School Anthems Celebrating 150 Years (Aug. 31st)

This is a fan recording, so it’s not quite as good as some of the other technical arrangements, but still the fan got a reasonable recording of most of the show. Again, an extensive show given that the season just started. The music and drill didn’t seem particularly challenging, but everything was reasonably well executed and I thought that the sound was very good. A nice start for the year.

DNP, Coach’s Decision

There’s nothing up yet for Indiana, Nebraska, or Purdue. Northwestern’s band has not even performed, yet. Penn State had a couple of fan recordings, but they generally post an official recording that is of higher quality and I’m going to wait for those to review.


We’re back. I hope that people will be OK with scaling back the workload a bit. If you want to get involved and share your own stories / experiences, I would love any help that I can get.