A blisteringly hot day in the North of England saw marching musical units from across the country take part in the first two competitions of the season. This well-run joint British Youth Band Association (BYBA) and Drum Corps United Kingdom (DCUK) event was a day of surprises, excitement, and above all, impressive performances from those on the field.
First up braving the heat in the BYBA content class were Spalding Marching Ambassadors, immediately making an impression with some effective crescendos that belied the size of their brass line. A reverse-face movement into the chorus of Time is Running Out by rock band Muse was particularly nicely done. The versatility of the musicians was on show as brass players moved onto cymbals and then tuned percussion for Coldplay’s Clocks – the use of synths to underpin the mallet work was a nice touch. The theme of ‘Time’ moved through the whole show in a performance that had the entertainment value of a band several times their size and today won them the Field Visual caption. They also had possibly the first ever use of a cajon on a UK field proving it’s not always the big guys who can innovate.
Their competitors today in this class were Concord Allstars and boy, what a leap forward this year’s show is. The theme of ‘The Final Frontier’ flowed from the musical selections from Star Wars, E.T. and Star Trek through to details such as the Drum Major’s ‘Spock’ salute. There were some nice contrasts in the music and the thunderous drumline continued to impress with the progress they’ve made. Highlights included a perfectly paced opener of Also Sprach Zarathustra (aka theme from 2001 A Space Odyssey) in a demanding show that will surely take Concord to the next level and today earned them a comfortable first place. Aim for the stars, guys!
Chris Healy, Precussion Tech for Concord offered his post-show view of how it had gone and answered questions about their new ‘Mair’ marching percussion:
“It was a really good performance. We’re very proud of the kids. We range from 8-16 years of age, with most being 14 and under. Obviously, because we have so many young members, we’ve really struggled in the past with the weight of some marching drums. So this year we’ve decided to invest in carbon fibre drums. Southern Percussion has helped us greatly in getting them to us and this is our first outing with them. The kids really like them. They are much lighter allowing us to rehearse for longer periods. We are still fund raising to pay for them all.”
Conor Hadley, fresh off the field after their second performance of the day marching bass drum, told Cainan what it had been like to perform in the heat, particularly with such a heavy instrument:
“I really don’t know how I coped! But I felt the afternoon show was better than this morning. The music was better and the visuals too. I have been in the band since I was 8. I am 13 now.”
The Championship class featured 5 bands but with no disrespect to the good performances from all units, it was always going to be owned by Phantom Knights D&BC. Their chess themed show was well conceived and confidently performed from the frontline prologue as the board was laid out on the field, through to some exciting action sequences with guard purposely tumbling over as pieces were knocked from the board whilst others danced in celebration. The brass proved their abilities with a strong opening statement and kept the performance levels up through the rest of the show, not least some nice trumpet work in Feeling Good. They took a clean sweep of the music and visual captions and first place overall.
Dynamic Vibe Performance Ensemble had ‘Emotions’ as their theme taking the audience on a journey beginning with anger but ultimately arriving at love. Along the way we had Radiohead’s Creep express sadness and the Chuck Mangione classic Land of Make Believe lift our spirits and encouraging us to clap along. A really enjoyable colourguard performance that combined both individual dance and ensemble movement was a real asset to the show and the hard-working brass deserved some serious credit for their fast moving performance compensating for the lack of marching percussion. Personally I’d have liked the drum kit positioned so as not to be partially muffled by other frontline instruments – get those beats heard!
Comets Performance Ensemble took an intriguing show concept – ‘From Here to Eternity’ – exploring ideas about the afterlife and beginning with a faltering heartbeat. A sombre Stairway to Heaven moved into a progressively faster sequence of music with ladders a recurrent visual theme. An impressive euphonium solo atop one such ladder really grabbed the audiences attention and as elevated brass players swapped places with the guard for the crescendo of Leonard Cohen’s Alleluia the show reached an elegant peak. A vibrant Ode to Joy rounded off one of the most coherent show concepts of the competition.
Stafford Brigades challenged the audience to ‘Dare to Dream’ beginning with Avicii’s The Nights. In return we were presented with a range of music that explored the theme with some particularly effective visuals during Alleluia as the brass marched at dual speeds towards a nicely delivered crescendo. The percussion gave a great performance and justly deserved second placing in the caption. Sometimes an audience need a prompt to applaud and I felt the show would be lifted greatly with the addition of a short cadence to some of the pieces enhancing what is visually a very strong and well performed show that today took second place overall. After the show Drum Major, Visual Writer and Music Director, Nic Jones, was justifiably pleased with the performance:
“Considering the weather, how hot it is today, the corps did really, really well. There’s still much work for us to do and with better weather conditions, I think our performance would be much improved.”
“Please Sir, can I have some more?” – it could be the words of any one of the audience at today’s event which continued to delight throughout the day, but in this case was spoken by one of Halifax BB/GB Band’s members as part of their production based on the musical ‘Oliver’. An enjoyable romp through Food Glorious Food made the most of each of the sections and worked well as an opening number. The drummers swapping instruments for umbrellas in I’d do anything was a nice visual touch as the brass and xylophone took care of the music. The smallest band competing today worked hard to deliver a well thought out show.
Today’s hosts, Revolution, were the only competing unit in BYBA Premier Class but this did not diminish the effort they put into their performance. This corps have made such advances in recent years that they’ve become one of those I’m most excited to see at the start of the season. After a move to a more jazz-influenced style last year, their 2017 production – ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ – returns them to a dramatic style of music that I think really suits the corps.
A confident opening statement combing lush melody and discord as befits the theme led into a dynamic first number. A driving drumline and cohesive music writing really zipped the show along and the musically and visually exciting ending proved what a great brass sound these guys can put out. The guard brought real tension and drama to the narrative, not least with some exciting rifle work. Performing again in the even hotter afternoon DCUK competition Revolution brought more attack to the performance – an impressive achievement, not least when you consider the average age of the corps is 14 – and certainly the sign of what promises to be a vintage season for this unit.
After the show Cainan caught up with Tom Fairfield, Visual Caption Head, and commented on the evident improvement in the corps:
“In the offseason, we had a full restructure within the organisation. So this year, the visual, colorguard and percussion caption heads are all different. They are all people that have never taken these positions with other corps before, so its all fresh thinking and fresh ideas, which has a huge amount to do with it. Having been involved with Revolution last year (my first year with the corps) as a visual tech, the attitude from the staff and members was different from the get go. We want to achieve that next level of performance, which I believe we have.”
Corps Director Oliver Richardson explained the change in thinking:
“I think when you look at our show last year… Rainforest… it was a bit wishy-washy. This years show is Jekyll and Hyde. It’s a concept the kids can understand. If an 8 or 9 year old kid can understand what we are trying to do, they can sell it and hopefully the scores will follow.”
We also sought the perspective of marching member Jimmy Wood in his second full year in Drum Corps and his first with Revolution, marching Tuba – how is it different joining a corps in the UK without the benefit of marching band experience in school that would be expected in the USA?
“That’s a really funny story actually as I was never really a musical person. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I took up playing. I took up tuba because I wanted something to help with my asthma, and I knew someone who was in a “band”. I didn’t know what kind of band this was but I went along to a rehearsal, and decided I wanted to play the tuba. It was a case of self discovery I guess!”
Concord, Comets and Dynamic Vibe also performed again in DCUK competition with the latter digging deep in Open Class and finding the edge to swap placings with Comets from the morning competition.
If pre-show buzz in the stands is a measure of how hotly anticipated a show is, then Beeches 2017 show was eagerly awaited. The last three years have seen them carve a unique approach to show design and consistently deliver quality performances from the start of the season.
A significant increase in size, albeit sadly from another corps not marching this year, means they now have opportunity to show how they can apply their approach on a bigger scale. Large static field props were used to display banners gradually introducing the theme of ‘Senses’ as well as being a platform for solos. ‘Hearing’ was never in doubt – this corps have impressive volume for 23 horns and field a strong drumline.
Visually the start of the show borrowed heavily from the Bluecoats which is something of a surprise given the previous originality of the corps design team. This fast moving athletic style of drill continued throughout teamed with a mostly classical repertoire letting up only for a delightful reading of Pure Imagination featuring a flute and mellophone duet. The performance levels are almost off the scale and that this was delivered with such determination, enthusiasm and big smiles meant you couldn’t help but be swept up with the spectacle, even if it did leave you somewhat gasping for breath.
This was an impressive start to the season, which teamed with their own perfectionism should be quite some show by the end of the year. Great support from their family and friends too – what good drum corps is all about.
Prior to them taking the field, trumpet player Kirsty Hoban was asked if she was excited for the first performance of the new show:
“I am, but it’s really hot though! I’m most looking forward to the closer. It’s really exciting!”
Beeches’ John Dimmick commented on the challenge of joining up with Nexus for this season:
“It’s actually been really smooth. I was previously the director at Nexus. We alternate our rehearsal sites. It’s about 100 miles between them. We stay over and there is a real family feel here. Our youngest member is 8 and the oldest 57. The average age would be in the early 20’s.”
After the show he was pleased with the corps outstanding performance:
“It went really well. We’ve done everything we wanted to do today. We got a show on the field with the context we wanted to be there. So we just wait and see what the judges think and where we go from here.”
The judges were impressed – Beeches took third place with scores showing particular strengths in percussion and effect.
East Coast Elite have swapped last year’s church pews for nightclub tables and chairs – a nightclub in 1920s Chicago to be exact. Complete with shootings, police sirens and a jailhouse this show combines the corps strength in classy performances with a jazzier sound and a dash of gallows humour.
The centrepiece of the show is Cell Block Tango from the musical Chicago with some lovely guard work and opportunity for the corps to play in a more ‘relaxed’ style than previous years – something that’s actually notoriously difficult to do. This piece heads the show towards a dramatic finish although seasoned drum corps fans will also enjoy the blink-and-you-miss-it dash through a few classics such as Channel One Suite and Harlem Nocturne. East Coast Elite have regularly set themselves a high end of season target and reaped the rewards of working steadily towards it delivering an impressive show at finals. With a seemingly invigorated drumline and a new challenge for the brass there’s no reason to think they won’t be pulling off the same trick again this year.
Lee Jex, Drumline and Visual Tech for ECE gave his opinion on what had been a good performance in demanding conditions:
“Yeah, first show today. We’re always little nervous at first but I think it actually went really well. The heat was in fact really difficult. We took it really easy in rehearsal today. We stopped a couple hours before the show and had a real easy warmup. We were affected by it but pulled through. The average age is 16. We only have two members over 25. For the American readership, we have a different school regime over here. Schools are smaller and music isn’t taught in schools here. We have to basically teach our kids from scratch.”
Cainan asked about one member who is marching with Boston Crusaders this year:
“Yes, my daughter. She plays trumpet. She will be joining us for the second half of our season after DCI…”
A voice calls out… “Lee also played for Boston…”
“Yes. I played snare in Boston in 1991.”
At which point Cainan recalled Boston beat his corps, Freelancers, at the Massachusetts show that year, but they had retuned the favour at the next competition! Laughter and handshakes ensued…
Kidsgrove Scouts took the field with a new uniform and real sense of purpose. This corps will travel to compete in DCA for the 4th time this year and if this performance was anything to go by, they have their sights on the top spot. Their ‘Montagues & Capulets’ show features Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture and Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet with just a dash of that trademark Kidsgrove jazz for good measure.
As you will have guessed, the theme is based around Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and a strong narrative runs through the show with the corps often split into warring factions. Storytelling elements from the superb guard push the story along combining a high degree of technicality with an emotionally resonant performance. This makes for a visually rich show and noticeably faster movement around the field from the musicians than in previous years – it’s a show that grabs you and doesn’t let go.
A fantastic brass line, perhaps a little more restrained this year and all the tighter for it, really sell the music and the rumoured hard work by the marching percussion certainly looks to be paying dividends too. It’s no secret that John Meehan of the Blue Devils is music consultant this year and perhaps some of that winners attitude is already evident on the field. This is by far the best start of season performance I’ve seen from the Scouts and one of their most enjoyable shows to date.
Were the first show nerves showing just before they stepped off? – we caught up with some of the brassline as they lined up:
“Just really looking forward to it! Exciting times! We’ve had a great winter. We are definitely prepared. Had a very good morning today. We just have to battle this heat. It’s unusual for us. It’s our main issue for today… we just need to get through that, but otherwise we’re all good. Let’s go!” – Craig Walker, Brass Caption Head
“We’ve got a brand new look and brand new style this season. We’ve got a fantastic ensemble and a great group of people. We have a very good, strong concept and hopefully we’ll be a contender this year.” Connor Allen – Tuba
After the show, Drum Corps veteran Robert W Steele (trumpet), confessed it was the first show he’d marched in 17 years…
“I thought it went really well. Absolutely fantastic. The hornline, from my point of view, had a good run. We have a couple wee things we need to sort, but over all, really good.”
Drum Major Kerrie Brett was delighted with the performance and brushed off any worries about the weather they might face across the pond:
“We had a very good run today. We put in a bit of GE and the corps was right on top of tempos. The crowd certainly responded very well to the show. And the show is certainly designed to be a crowd pleaser. The Kidsgrove powerhouse is back! …It’s going to be hotter at DCA with added humidity. We try not to get affected by it, Instead, we bring the heat. We’re en fuego!”
Their gut reaction served them well – Kidsgrove had turned up the temperature and took the first place spot beating close rivals The Company by 0.400 points.
The final corps to perform today, The Company, preferred to let their show do the talking and certainly had something to say on the field. A distinctly bright and optimistic show concept – ‘Tomorrow, it’s just around the corner’ – shows off a hornline in fine form, arguably the best drumline in the country, a very capable frontline and some great visuals.
The centrepiece of the show is Pat Metheny’s Letter From Home and it’s a glorious arrangement that, perhaps contrary to current drum corps fashion, is given space and time on the field. It’s actually refreshing to hear a tune not chopped into fragments or rushed through and the result is perhaps the most satisfying musical moment of the day.
As ever with The Company there’s some inventive staging with large electric blue right-angle props wheeled around the field and used as platforms, frames and, in one sequence, a series of steps for the corps to march forward over to great effect. The musical writing and upbeat visuals render the accompanying narration somewhat superfluous – the optimism is all there in the music and movement. There’s no doubt this is a purposefully feel-good show although being a corps who enjoy adding detail throughout the season, I wouldn’t be wholly surprised if a little musical shade is added later in the year by way of some contrast. The Company are also travelling to America this year and will compete in the DCI International Class. They gave Kidsgrove Scouts a close run for their money today taking the music categories with a dead heat in visual.
What a start to the season. Each unit today gave determined and often impressive performances and there was great support from the crowd. And look out USA – there’s some excellent British Drum Corps heading your way!