It’s great British summer weather – “It’s that fine rain” someone reassuringly tweets as the car park of the stadium starts to fill with coaches and equipment trucks.
This being the first competition of the British marching band and drum corps seasons there’s understandably a bit of build-up on social media – some bands have announced the music of their 2015 production, some are shrouded in secrecy other than for an intriguing title or promo clip revealed on their website. There are rumours of new uniforms, delight at bands competing for the first time and a slightly giddy expectation of the biggest hornline to have marched in Britain for some time.
Welcome to Music Revolution – a day of BYBA and DCUK competition in the North of England. Yes, we do big rain up here, but we also do big welcomes and now in a new improved venue this competition is as friendly and enjoyable a day as ever.
This is kind of my annual pilgrimage to a competition – playing in marching bands from 10 years old with several Boys’ Brigade outfits and capping it with a season with the Statesmen Drum and Bugle Corps seems to have left an incurable itch. And while my own music making is largely focussed on pubs these days (not that different to the Statesmen then…) I can at least bring my son along who seems to be following the family tradition in our local BB company.
I seem to remember playing in the rain more than the sun, and it’s certainly far from perfect conditions for competing in but this doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Stafford Brigades Youth Marching Band – the first competitors in the BYBA championship class. In fact The Boys and Girls Brigade as an organisation are guaranteed a victory here today with an all-Brigade Championship class which also includes Halifax BB/GB Band and Lanesfield BB/GB Drum & Bugle Corps. Stafford’s ‘A Journey Through The Magic of Disney’ is a very competent performance from a noticeably young band and they’re rewarded with first place by a decent margin. Music
from the movies also features strongly in Halifax’s performance with the Harry Potter theme a particular highlight of this year’s show. All the BB/GB bands come fresh from their own championships held the week before and Lanesfield provide a polished performance that earned them the BB championship class runners-up spot last week and the same again today. Disney scores feature in this show too along with music from the Pixar animated films and it’s a noticeably musical performance from the whole corps with the theme from ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ really taking flight.
The Traditional Class sees Barnsley Sea Cadets competing for the first time. This young band bring both Bb bugles and valved instruments to play a selection of traditional marching tunes and do themselves credit – your first competition can be a nerve-wracking event, even more so the first for the whole band. It’s also a welcome reminder of how good the traditional sea cadets uniform looks on a marching unit although that white webbing on the ankles doesn’t leave anywhere to hide if you’re not all marching in step. The class is won by 10th South Shields Boys Brigade/Girls Association who are also making their BYBA debut today. These former 3-times BB champions are worthy winners with their mix of music and showmanship.
As competition hosts Revolution Show Corps start to wheel castle battlements onto the field you instantly get the impression of the slightly different vibe of the premier class. All three premier entrants will also be competing in the afternoon’s DCUK competition which adds an extra dimension to the day as these corps will have opportunity to try and improve on their morning’s show and perhaps steal a few points on their competitors. It will also be interesting to see if the slightly different judging criteria in the two competitions effect the placings.
This is the first of two medieval-themed show by corps today with Beeches Performance Ensemble also setting their show around the battle between good and evil. Revolution make an instant impact with a confident opening statement and an impressive brass sound. They’re also fielding a larger drum line this year and combined they deliver a determined performance that belies the relatively young age of many of those marching. One of the highlights comes as the pretender to the throne – who has stolen the Queen’s crown and taken over conducting the corps – is challenged to battle and the hornline and guard go to war with some very nicely choreographed stage fighting while the drums and frontline provide the soundtrack of the battle.
This integration of musicians and storytelling also features in Beeches show who set two horn players in the good and evil roles, reframing Arthurian legend with each trying to prise the sword from the stone as the show progresses. Beeches are one of the smaller corps performing at this level today but their tight performance, clean percussion and strong biting hornline really deliver. Good finally triumphs in their show and the sword is held aloft as the climax of a committed performance which sees the corps also triumph and take first place today.
East Coast Elite Brass & Percussion Corps take us back to the Greek myth of Pandora’s box. The field is dressed with Corinthian columns (their set design is very professional and nicely frames the show) and it isn’t long before the centre-stage gold box is opened and evil is unleashed reflected in the music and visual design. This is a musically demanding show that the corps don’t always manage to deliver convincingly in the morning’s competition. That said, their rendition of Khachaturian’s ‘Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia’ is very well staged and written, and as well as being the strongest point of their show this morning could easily shape up to also be one of the highlights of the season. And remember, they get another shot at showing what they can do later in the afternoon…
After a short break (good opportunity to wander round the lot and see who you can catch warming up) the DCUK show begins with the cadet class Concord AllStars. This ensemble grow and improve year on year and the 2015
edition take us on a journey through 80s pop, all music – as pointed out in the programme – from before any of Concord’s players were born. The corps begin moving in a shape echoing the turning of a radio dial and the static clears to reveal a great brass sound and some inventive percussion – there’s no tightly defined roles in this corps: snare drummers are as likely to be playing congas or bongos and the bass drum line are getting funky on maracas and timbale. It’s an entertaining show performed with an enthusiasm that’s a joy to watch.
Open class begins with Revolution‘s second performance of the day. It’s equally as committed as in the BYBA contest and sees them overtake the morning’s champions on points, mostly picked up on general effect. As a spectator it’s welcome opportunity to see this cohesive well thought-out show again. It strikes me as perfectly suited to the size and ability of the corps and has some nice touches such as when they march as one into the castle and the mellophones appear atop the ramparts to play a fanfare. They earn a confident third place.
There’s a tantalising pause as one of the most eagerly-awaited shows of the season is preceded by a significant amount of on-field props entering the stadium. The Company Performance Ensemble has, more than any other British corps, embraced what might be termed the ‘new style’ of drum corps where synthesizers, narration and even singers might be part of the show. There’s much debate as to whether these rule changes are a good thing but ultimately it comes down to what you do with them – are you just adding something extra (and potentially gimmicky) to your show purely because you can or are you creating something new and exciting with these new tools? To my mind there’s no doubt that The Company do the latter and have already created one of the most accessible and entertaining performances on a UK field with their 2012 show, ‘Red Riding Hood’ which combined narration, music and movement to great effect.
Their 2015 production ‘Voyage Spectacle’ – set around a travelling minstrel show in turn of the 20th century Paris – is a thing of infectious joy starting before the corps even play a note with a tongue-in-cheek introduction and call to the judges in a thick fruity French accent. The corps start handing out their instruments on field in a purposely chaotic opening as the minstrels set up their show, and before long there are trumpeters on step ladders, an acrobatic colourguard and a glorious waltzing drumline. This builds quickly to a strong opening statement and the audience is totally won over.
What follows is a show of some quite diverse music, often physically and musically demanding to perform, marched beautifully and, one suspects, cleverly written so it’s all achievable. Key is a highly competent front line who add real musical sparkle and often provide an accessible sheen by layering grooving rhythms over complex point-winning passages by the other sections. I guess if you’re looking for a phrase to describe what The Company do it would be ‘total performance’ or something – the guard and musicians move as one and it’s clear that they’ve approached this show with a clear vision in which the music and visuals are completely entwined. It would be ridiculous to suggest that this is a return to form by a corps who are the reigning Drum Corps Europe champions, but they’ve created something this year that’s as exciting and enjoyable as when they first made such a big impression with this approach and it’s fantastic stuff.
East Coast Elite return to the field seemingly having squashed a weekends’ rehearsal in the interleaving 2 hours. They deliver a much more convincing performance and indication that they’re more than capable of conquering the musical challenges they have set themselves over the course of the season. Even the choppy syncopated segments of the show are played with an appetite and a more cohesive, perhaps even aggressive, brass voice. They’re rewarded with a good spread of points across all sections and achieve 4th place.
Beeches were inevitably going to suffer with the DCUK scoring system and so the strength of their show in that the players and narrative are as one can’t compensate for the absence of a colourguard. In truth they’re also not quite as sharp as their winning performance in the morning, but it’s still an engaging show and no less impressive a performance from a corps that has made huge leaps of achievement over the last few years.
The final performance of the day comes with a great deal of expectation. Kidsgrove Scouts will be travelling to compete in America again this summer and have bolstered their ranks forming a 121 member corps to do that. Add to that their choice of music – Samuel Barber’s ‘Medea’s Dance Of Vengeance’ – used to tell the stories of Stonehenge, and many in the audience are understandably excited to hear what that sounds like. Well it’s loud. Very loud.
As the drum line open the show tracking across the rear of the field playing one of Kidsgrove’s trademark funky rhythms the brass start appearing a section at a time from behind soft towers, which are for some reason a dusky pink (‘marshmallow henge?’ my young son cheekily suggests. I figure they must be a temporary solution to the problem of simulating Stonehenge on a football pitch and everyone is probably at least relieved that there hasn’t been a Spinal Tap type misunderstanding). The horns keep coming until I lose count. Given that this is a good stadium for a marching band show anyway due to the field being close to the stand, the sound of that hornline parked and letting rip is something else.
The opening arrangement builds expectation with climbing notes until the first hit, which even then teases twice before the full brass choir are playing and the crowd are spontaneously shouting and whooping. This isn’t a re-run of Star of Indiana’s 1993 show though, Kidsgrove’s Medea is more like the Buddy Rich Big Band playing Barber on a jet plane. It’s slick and jazzy with tribal drums, a jig, and even screaming trumpet solos. Kidsgrove take 1st place with musical effect and a strong colourguard performance giving them the edge over The Company. It’ll be exciting to see what they achieve in America this year as I think this is an even stronger corps than when they last took the trip stateside to compete (and on video evidence quite probably deserved a better placing than they achieved that year).
Weather and grass pitches being what they are we’re not treated to a repeat performance by the winners but it has been a day of strong performances, especially for so early in the season and reveals that there is much to enjoy and be excited by in both BYBA and DCUK this year – get to a show and experience it for yourself.
BYBA – Many thanks to Adrian for this great review, we hope to have a reviewer at every BYBA contest this season. If you’d like to write a review for us contact firstname.lastname@example.org.