Note to Readers: I don’t write a lot about Drum & Bugle Corps on this blog, although it’s an activity that I have been involved with from my early teens, first as a performer with the Bayonne Bridgemen, to the present day as a fan and supporter of The Blue Devils from Concord, CA. This past summer at the Drum Corps International World Championships, a very special relationship emerged between the fans and the corps that would become the 2008 Drum Corps International World Class Champions, The Phantom Regiment, from Rockford, IL. Fortunate to have been able to be a part of this remarkable experience, I decided to chronicle it for the readers of Drum Corps Planet. I include it here, as just another view into a part of my world … One that got just a little bit larger than life for three days, and provided memories that I’ll carry with me forever. If you’re not of a part of the drum corps scene, and this all seems a bit foreign to you, don’t feel bad. There is a lifetime of back-story here, about an activity that is almost universally misunderstood by the majority of people not involved with drum corps.
Even before the scores were announced at Memorial Stadium last Saturday night, fans, judges and other members of the drum corps community were hailing 2008 as the single best, and by far the most memorable season in the history of the DCI Movement. It was a year marked by what many believe is a turnaround in the direction of drum corps programming, with a return to fan-friendly music, and performance levels in all of our corps that exceeded any expectation. Edutainment seemed to have made its peace with Entertainment, and Finals night saw the single-greatest collection of drum corps ever assembled in a top 12 competition.
This year was also a watershed year for storytelling in drum corps, setting standards for using narrative, music and visual imagery to tell tales in new, exciting, and innovative ways.
There is simply too much ground to cover to try and present a single, all-encompassing view of what went on in Bloomington, as there were just so many positive things that different corps brought to the table. The most remarkable, to me, seemed to be the successes of some corps over some of the more established contenders. These successes due, largely, I feel, to this new direction in the art. Glassmen’s “Kar-Ne-Val”, with its circus imagery and lyrical music; Bluestars, and their awesome use of music and movement to convey the imagery of The Tour de France in “LeTour: Every Second Counts”; The Bluecoats and their use of archetypal imagery in telling their Boxer story in “The Knockout”; Carolina Crown and the sheer wit, brilliant musicianship and wonderful color guard in their story of a Mad Composer in “Finis”. These were but a few examples of what made this week the most memorable DCI Championships that I’ve ever been to.
The big story, the one that drum corps fans will be talking about for years to come, is the story of our newly-crowned World Class Champion, The Phantom Regiment.
The tale of this year’s Regiment is more than just a story about a great drum corps passing a number of extremely worthy competitors to win a title at great odds, although that’s a hell of a story in and of itself. The real story is how the Regiment was able to break through the “4th Wall” and grab the audience, not so much pulling them into the story of Spartacus, but by bonding with us in such a way that made everyone in the audience leap willingly through that imaginary wall. In doing so, they created a synergy between the performers and the audience that I don’t think has ever been experienced to that degree in a drum corps competition. The whole three day experience developed into nothing short of a love affair between the Regiment and their audience coming from a spontaneous bond that was not unlike what performance artists in the ’60s would call “a happening.”
Just as a point of reference, my own junior corps was mostly made up of members who were, what are known in showbiz lingo as, “Money Players” … Our performances depended a lot (for better or worse) on the involvement of the audience. When we were on and, the audience was on, there was an energy that flowed between us and the crowd that amplified the experience … It inspired us to greater heights, and gave us the energy to really lay it all out, if you will.
Conversely, if the audience was flat and lacking in enthusiasm, we tended to be flat as well. It was a symbiotic relationship, a groove between the artist and the audience that made the experience something greater than the than the sum of its parts. I hate to get all metaphysical, but that’s exactly what it was … the connection of that energy was like a mystical high that we thrived on. We loved our audience, and on the best of days it was reciprocal.
I’ve been jazzed about this year’s Phantom Regiment ever since I saw them at Stanford in July. Even knowing that Regiment always builds on the effects and adds the bells and whistles as the season progresses, there was a certain coherence about the show that looked like they had the potential to take this a lot farther than might be evident on the surface. I thought Regiment was sitting on a winner … If they could take it far enough.
That potential really started manifesting as they started adding to the show … Oh, they had the musicianship from the get-go. The talent was there. All the little changes, additions, costuming, props, the herald trumpets … all of it built on the foundation. But what really started making it happen, more than anything else in selling that show, was when they started letting loose with the magic ingredient: A complete commitment to the selling the theatrical elements of the show. In other words, fully committing to approaching drum corps as theater.
It was genius.
It was when they totally brought on the attitude, cranking it up, and getting in to character that the production really started to take off. With every level that they amped-up the attitude, and committed more deeply to their characters, they reached out further to the audience until it finally clicked. They connected on that deeper level with their audience and found their inner gladiators.
When the Regiment took the field in Bloomington, the sheer presence that they projected reached out to the crowd completely. They didn’t just take the field … They owned it, and everybody else in the house had just been borrowing it. Now they might as well take the IU logo off the fifty and put down a double chevron. They were home.
Every bit of play acting, from the soldiers’ brutal treatment of the slaves, to laying the seeds of discord between the drum majors … It all got to the audience, quickly, and suddenly we were in it with them. Willing participants in the passion and drama that was to come. In doing this they took theatricality in drum corps to a new level, almost creating a new type of performance art. The further over-the-top they took it, the quicker and easier it became for the audience to get involved.
I’ve been in and around drum corps almost all of my life. I’ve marched in a top 4 DCI corps, and I’ve experienced, what I felt was, an unbelievable connection to the audience. But never anything that ever approached the level of intensity of the connection between the Regiment and the audience in Bloomington. It was as if every bit of fire and passion that the Regiment was putting into their show was coming right back at ’em from the crowd, almost willing them to take “Spartacus” to new heights and us along with them. It was literally about sharing the love, pure and simple.
At some point spontaneous audience interaction just started. Happening with audience member after audience member joining in with the corps screaming an impassioned “I AM SPARTACUS!”. We were there, we were with them. We were them. It was good.
This special bond only increased as the week progressed. By Saturday night the contract was sealed: They had us and we had them. We were gonna’ get through this thing together and the love just flowed back and forth between the corps and the crowd. It was pure Magic.
We drum corps folk tend to be a pretty partisan lot … I regularly honk a NorCal shade of Blue. Friends around me were into different shades of Blue, Green and Red … The whole spectrum. On Saturday night when Regiment hit the field, it didn’t matter … Regardless of home team, we were one. We were Spartacus.
The show was sublime … The highlight of a night of truly gifted performances by every corps that took the field.
When it came time for retreat, the energy was flowing into the Regiment in a major way. It was between the audience and the Regiment. The had won our hearts, and while that was amazing and special, the collective consciousness wanted, no, demanded, it to go further.
As the Regiment drum major lay on the field in between the other corps’ majors covered in his death shroud (another brilliant extension of the moment), we waited.
The scores were announced as the tension built amidst a reading that included other surprises for many. By the time Carolina Crown’s 4th place score was announced, the air was thick and quiet.
Then … 3rd place … Cavaliers! Spartacus was still alive.
What happened next has already been well documented. You can probably find the video on YouTube. As legendary DCI field announcer Brandt Crocker sliced though an agonizingly long pause, awarding the Silver Medal to the Blue Devils, Memorial Stadium erupted in an explosion of audience approval unlike any reception received by the crowning of a new champion in DCI history.
The rest of retreat was like a blur, the bittersweet approach of the end of the evening tempered with the knowledge that we would get to see our heroes take the field one more time. An interminable amount of time seemed to pass before Brandt voiced the words we were all waiting to hear.
“Phantom Regiment, the field is yours!” And with that simple acknowledgement, the stadium filled again with the cheers of an ecstatic crowd.
They did not disappoint. Phantom Regiment honored their audience by going back, resetting, and giving us a full performance of their World Championship show as an encore … From the very first entrance of the returning Roman Army and their slaves to the inevitable conclusion of Drum Major Will Pitts’ untimely demise at the hands of one of his subordinates.
And once again, it was magic.
As a final gift, the Regiment shared with us a performance of their most treasured music selection, and corps’ hymn, “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral”. The guard holding each other, arm in arm, as the lush Wagnerian melody filled the air.
There were few, if any, dry eyes to be seen anywhere on the field … or in the stands for that matter.
Finally, it was time to let our victors have the field to themselves, as they circled around their Director, Rick Valenzuela, in what was clearly a family moment. They had given us all they had, and now it was their time for a bit of reflection and celebration before beginning the next step of their lives … Wherever it may take them.
Hoarse from screaming, I found a couple of other “old timers” to share thoughts with. Our opinions were unanimous. We had just been witness to something unprecedented in the annals of drum corps history.
Dismiss this as the overly-sentimental musings of a life-long drum corps fan, or not, as you will. It is my belief, that the story of the 2008 Phantom Regiment, “Spartacus”, and three magical nights in Bloomington, Indiana, will go on to become the stuff of drum corps legend.
I feel privileged to have been there to share the experience.