If Aaron Rodgers ever picked out the halftime entertainment for a Packers game and based it on his mind-altering experience with Peruvian ayahuasca it might look like a Drum Corps International (DCI) competition.
What’s DCI, you say? Well, Louis Armstrong apparently said if you have to ask what jazz is, well, you’ll never know.
Or something like that.
Drum Corps International marked 50 years this summer. Some of the drum corps are older still, including the Blue Devils from Concord, California, which is the New York Yankees, the New England Patriots, the hot dog-eatin’ Joey Chestnut of the activity. They pretty much almost always win the championship.
Win, you say? Yes, because drum corps shows are judged by a team of judges, each assigned to measure a different set of metrics while they watch a corps perform its musical act on a football field.
Drum corps don’t exactly march anymore. They move about like an aerobics or yoga class meeting Cirque du Soleil at a Beyonce or Cher concert with the ghost of Fosse floating about and flags, fabric and props abounding. Lady Gaga needs to see this stuff. Madonna should sponsor a show. And date the corps director.
Drum corps have long stopped limiting themselves to being accompanied merely by an assortment of brass instruments. It’s only a matter of time before there’s a ukulele, if there hasn’t been one already. Or a saxophone. Or the dreaded flute.
Oh. There are also voice overs. Recorded sound effects. Accordions. Singing. And keytar . And electric guitar players.
Most of the drum corps don’t dress in traditional marching-style uniforms these days, nor do many wear hats of any sort. The wardrobe is Broadway/Vegas loud, frequently multicolored, sometimes like a restaurant from the 1990s, sometimes mostly white, like a party in The Hamptons.
The choice of music would drive your Spotify algorithm crazy. Some is composed specifically for a corps show. But there are alt and classic rock, classical, jazz, minimalism, movie music and show tunes thrown in for good measure. Soul? R&B? Funk? Not so much.
And yes, I willingly went to see this, the world championship semifinals inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
Hey, I’m a sucker for a wall of sound, of dozens of horns coming toward you with a big wave of melody.
Plus, I don’t get out much.
We went to the semis instead of the finals because the corps basically play the same show each night. And usually the corps that is in first after semis wins in the end. It’s also cheaper.
Sitting in the upper deck in the stadium added an element of danger to the affair. After all, a few days later a drunk dude fell from up there during a Motley Crue concert. There was also this spooky, big round guy who kept moving to different seats he thought might be unoccupied. I notified the FBI when I went to get a soda.
For us old guys, though, who were behaving ourselves, it was more about the altitude and the pitch of the seats. Besides, nobody played Motley Crue.
A corps from Wyoming, though, mashed up Metallica with some Stravinsky in their show, which had something to do with oil. In fact, Troopers put up a 20-foot-tall faux oil rig in the middle of the field, replete with a cello player soloing from the top of it. She did not look like Daniel Day Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”. Not even close.
Keeping with the touch of metal, the Colts from Dubuque, Iowa incorporated Led Zeppelin, as well as Phillip Glass & Ravi Shankar into their presentation, which was about the Silk Road.
More classic rock came from the Sacramento Mandarins, who played Pink Floyd and some spooky Stranger Things sounds in their set about “The Other Side”. No Doors, though.
The Cavaliers from Rosemont are the only remaining all-dude DCI corps. They called their show “Signs of the Times ” but didn’t play any Prince, who has a song with a similar title. They did move about to Bach, the Steve Miller Band, some group I’ve never heard of called Bent Knee and teen heartthrob Harry Styles. Alas, no “Time” from Pink Floyd.
Phantom Regiment from Rockford called their performance “No Walk Too Far.” The walk ended with Mahler’s 5th. They had one of those horn lines I mentioned.
The Blue Stars from LaCrosse, Wisc. had a lot of theater set-like pieces and props for their show, which was based on Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Many folks don’t know this, but when Tolstoy wrote his sprawling Russian novel, he was hoping one day it would be interpreted by a drum corps on a football field. Either way, the show had more peace than war about it.
Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” inspired The Cadets from Allentown who traveled from the east end zone to the west to music from back in Jack’s day. Another book theme. I was waiting for a PBS Pledge Drive to happen.
This reminded me. Our road trip to Indianapolis took five hours. Best Fest Buddy Tom thought it would be quicker to take I-57 to I-70, doing the two legs of the right triangle instead of the hypotenuse that is I-65. Only thing is, 57 is just as tore up as 65 and the ramp to 70 east was closed. We wound up driving through the heart of Champaign-Urbana.
An SIU grad, Tom said he had never been to the home of U of I. Check that off the bucket list, eh? Also, we did see a caravan of Corvettes filling up at a gas station in the middle of nowhere prior to that, which was “Smokey and the Bandit” kind of cool.
But back to the DCI show.
Santa Clara Vanguard called their show “Finding Nirvana,” which did, indeed, include a riff from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in its medley.
Things got trippier with Carolina Crown and their “Right Here Right Now” which began with a voice over asking the 30,000 spectators to scan a QR code set up by the drum major stand at the base of the 50 yard line. Somehow, supposedly it could determine songs on people’s phones. The AI picked BonJovi’s “Living on a Prayer” as being on the most. The drum corps members sang a brief snippet of that 80s tune before embarking on their performance. Some of their props made me want to hit an IKEA.
Canton, Ohio’s Bluecoats did not wear a lot of blue. According to the FloMarching website, their show was “inspired by the lucid dreamscape created by Brad Mehldau in the avant-garde jazz piece ‘Taming the Dragon’”. Their production “Riffs & Revelations” “explored the soundtrack to our dreams.” It also had narration. A billboard sized cutout of “Easy Rider” era Dennis Hopper stood on the northeast corner of the football field. I’m still not sure why. I’m still sort of frightened.
(Flash forward again. A few days later I saw a Bluecoats reunion performance on YouTube. They were back in more traditional blue uniforms and played highlights from past shows.
A lot of the corps people had gained a lot of weight like a lot of the rest of us. Even the men and women who once danced, carried flags or twirled rifles. The performance was actually moving, as you could tell everyone there from across the decades was so happy to be playing drum corps style music again.
The only unnerving part was they opened with and returned to a bit of the Radiohead song “Creep” which sounds lovely in brass, but still, it’s “Creep”.)
Next up were the Boston Crusaders who interpreted Milton’s “Paradise Lost” as only a drum corps can. They melded Mozart, a bit of “What a Wonderful World” and a pinch or two of “Can’t Take My Eye Off of You”. Seven strategically placed coned-shaped trellises held dancers. A tenor sang worthy of a “Jesus Christ Superstar” revival star. Some shirtless guys emoted around and about for good measure. Since the corps members wore red, in my mind I confused this with “Dante’s Inferno.”
Finally, the Blue Devils, who did wear blue, put on a show about the color blue called “Tempus Blue” in honor of their 65th year as an organization. Did you know Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” was originally called “Blue River”? Now you do, thanks to the Blue Devils.
If you made it this far, congratulations. You are now ready to see DCI for yourself next summer. And if you think this piece ran long, well, we were at the stadium for more than five hours.
That’s not to mention our six-hour drive home the next day. That involved a trek through some neighborhoods in Indianapolis that looked like they would be fun to visit as we meandered our way back to I-65.
At our Goodwill shopping stop they had scary dolls, toy bees, a Ken Griffey, Jr. and pig figurines all next to each other. It felt like a DCI theme-in-the-works. We visited a Dog N Suds in tiny Brickston. Traffic around the Illinois-Indiana border stalled, as usual. Tom decided for some reason we should drive through Whiting, because it would be quicker. Avoiding the Skyway meant getting stuck in traffic on the Dan Ryan.
Another adventure done.
Throw in a water slide, Steely Dan, Shostakovich and a Shatner voice over – I might be on to creating a DCI show of my own!