Beating the drum for the Greater St. Louis Marching Band Festival

If the hipster in you had absolutely no time for the Greater St. Louis Marching Band Festival last week at the Trans World Dome, well, you need to readjust your priorities. You missed the region's most boom-bastic high-school marching bands squaring off in a no-holds-barred battle of brass. You missed the Lafayette Lancer Regiment's rousing renditions of "Happy Trails" and "Legend of Billy the Kid." You missed the St. Charles Band of Pirates cut the turf to a James Bond medley to die for. You missed Columbia's Rock Bridge High School massacre Billy Joel's "Pressure" (and we're still cursing them to this day; the hideous song is still locked tightly in our head, a brass section spitting out that annoying medley)

You missed the Parkway North Viking Band ripping through selections from the Broadway production of The Lion King. We're sure you're not sweating that particular lost opportunity, and you're not alone; at least a few Vikings were none too happy with the song selection. Viking French-horn player Jon Lindberg explains: "This year was pretty weak, I'd have to say. We were pretty disappointed. We didn't get our music until after our first performance, so we didn't really get to practice all that much. I mean, we played the Broadway "Lion King." That's pretty lame. We prefer the rock stuff, the jazz stuff." All in all, though, Lindberg was still quite happy with his group's performance. "There's something about the experience of playing in the Dome. We kind of psyched ourselves up for this competition."

Alas, the Viking Band didn't win their division -- that honor went to the Lafayette Lancer Regiment. Other winners included the Murphysboro Red Devils, the Parkway West Marching Longhorns and the St. Charles West Marching Warriors.

"There's three major categories," explains festival director C. Herbert Duncan. "There's music, and it's weighted the heaviest. Second is marching and third is general effect. Within those captions, we even divide that up into group and individuals. Within the music caption, how does the band play group-wise overall? And, individually, how are they doing? Same thing with marching and general effect." (Lucky for that band performing Billy Joel, bands are not scored negatively for song selection)

Watching the bands compete on Saturday was a blast. Nerves were frazzled, horns and shoes polished. You could see each student trace and retrace in his or her mind the complex combination of notes and steps, the intricate weaving of souls, band, majorettes and drum majors all working to create a perfectly timed musical maze on the field. Throughout each performance, serious-as-a-report-card judges wove in and out of the formations, talking into their Dictaphones, taking notes and judging the success and failure of each troupe. (Oh, to have a copy of one of these tapes; director Duncan describes what the judges are saying: "They will say something like, "At this point your dynamics could certainly be enhanced by, say, everybody turning the other way and coming back around. That would really give an explosion to this thing, because this is where the most important point of your show is coming.' Or they'll say, "The overall view is more of confusion than cohesion.' They'd never say, "Man, those people out there don't know what they're doing -- they're all out of step.' It's a constructive criticism that (the band directors) then play back for their students.")

Along with nearly everyone else, Duncan was particularly impressed by the St. Charles West Marching Warriors. Explains Warriors director Terry Martinez: "The piece was entitled "The Movement for Rosa,' based on the life of Rosa Parks. So our costuming was in black-and-white uniforms and this represented the conflicts of everyday life. We used the fences as barriers, as means to define people and imprison people. And then, at the end, the fences came down and we closed with -- a part of the movement is "We Shall Overcome' and ended back in the united line we started from."

Things have changed from the time when you could expect to see a band form a human steamboat as they played "Anchors Away." "The innovations I have seen," says Duncan, "is a great maturing, both musically and physically, of what the directors are trying to put across. Now, with all due respect, this doesn't play well to the halftime football crowd. They want to hear the school fight song and see them form an "N" for Normandy. But this particular event is definitely one in which they try and tell a story, (create) a pageant, try and get an idea across. We had an opera performed on Saturday. It wasn't your traditional opera like you've seen performed at the Rep or the Met, but it's done on the football field in a different medium."

Send all local tapes, tips, discs and detritus to Radar Station, The Riverfront Times, 6358 Delmar Blvd., Suite 200, St. Louis, MO 63130. E-mail: [email protected].

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