DCI & The Power of the Crowd

This post inspired by /r/happycrowds, my new favorite subreddit. And also drum corps, because it’s one of my favorite things of all things.

Like most other people on the internet today, I have now seen a video of 1,000 Italians performing the Foo Fighters song “Learn to Fly” in unison:

Image from Stereogum
I especially liked the grid of drum sets.

The video reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend a couple months ago, about how we both get overly emotional when sharing an experience with a group of people. It could be any situation, like the Giants winning the World Series or the day that San Francisco turned into Gotham City for a 5-year-old kid named Miles, or in my friend’s case, simply reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with his classmates in elementary school. It sounds weird, but I totally got what he meant: it’s about having something in common with all the people around you—citizens, fans, friends, or strangers—and that one shared thing is all that matters, at that moment. In most cases it’s a feeling of unity and cohesiveness and all-around warm fuzzies.

There is nothing that embodies this feeling more to me than drum corps, so excuse me while I geek out for a bit.

Rookie year, 2006

DCI (Drum Corps International) is what some people call “marching band on steroids.” I guess it’s necessary to compare it to band, but with a level of athleticism that rivals marathon runners and way sicker choreography. The people I’ve met through drum corps are easily the most talented, hard-working, and dedicated people I know. Even with full school schedules and part-time jobs, drum corps performers pursue the perfect show with the kind of insane devotion you see from kids who get full-ride scholarships to Berklee, or professional athletes who get paid to compete (except, the young adults in drum corps—and their families—pay thousands of dollars each season to do what they do). In return, they get to embark on a cross-country tour each summer, sleeping on buses and gym floors surrounded by an extended family of 150 people, performing for sold-out crowds in pro football stadiums.

I got to be a part of this activity for 3 years. Some people do it for a lot longer. But once you’re 21, you “age out” of being a drum corps performer, and suddenly that’s it: you never get to do it again. And the older I get, the more I admire how much blood, sweat, and tears a group of 15-to-21-year-olds can put into an 11-minute field show. It’s exhilarating just to watch, let alone be a part of it.

At any given DCI event, the crowd will be filled with alumni, proud family members, and hopeful band kids. Everyone has their favorite corps (after all, it is a competition), but there are always those shows that make you jump to your feet regardless of who you’re cheering for. The performers hype up the crowd, the crowd hypes up the performers. I’ve been lucky enough to experience it from both sides, and let me tell you, my eyes get misty and my heart swells up just the same regardless of whether I’m on the field or in the stands.

FAVORITE EXAMPLES, in varying degrees of video quality:

SCV ’04. The Vanguard yell gives me goosebumps EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. This was the first year I went to a DCI show. After that, I was hooked.

Phantom ’08. Whenever I watch this video, it makes me cry happy tears while fist pumping and yelling “I AM SPARTACUS” along with the crowd (2008 was Phantom Regiment’s first true championship).

Troopers ’13. Like Vanguard’s bottle dance, the Troopers’ sunburst is a classic old-skool DCI move – it’s too bad you can’t see the crowd when they do it in this video, but I guarantee you they’re going nuts.

DCI to me is what baseball or football or soccer is to some people: score-checking, forum-reading, and live-streaming (the Periscope app has been especially revolutionary). This post is appropriately timed because DCI Finals are next weekend in Indy, and if you’ve been keeping up, it’s been an incredible season. Additions to shows will be happening right up until finals night, and the corps in the first place slot has been changing daily. I can’t wait to see what happens, but most of all I can’t wait to see the energy at finals night. I won’t be there in person, sadly, but I’m going to try to go to the annual theater showing and get my face blasted off along with a bunch of other “strangers” who have the same love for the activity as me.

Thank you Foo Fighters and Italian musicians and drum corps performers/crowds everywhere, for reminding me of the pure physical and emotional power of music. I hope there will always be things that make me feel this way.


Today I spent a lovely afternoon at Stern Grove, soaking up some much-needed sunshine and supa fresh music. For non-locals, Stern Grove is a park in San Francisco where free concerts are held every weekend during the summer (great deal, right?). Usually you can expect the weather to be cold and foggy, because that’s just what it’s like all the time around here. But today was gloriously hot, perfect for laying out a blanket and eating cherries until your stomach hurts and your feet are on fire from the sun (I’m a true San Franciscan now; apparently direct sunlight makes me melt).

The concerts are held in the “recreation grove” which is half picnic area, half magical pixie forest. See photo below for proof.

That is a homemade funfetti cupcake. A magical treat for a magical afternoon.
That is a funfetti cupcake. As if the day wasn’t awesome enough already.

The sound gets pretty eaten up by the time it gets through all the trees, but the nice thing is you can always venture down to the front and find a spot up close, which is what we did later.

Today’s performers were Dakha Brakha and Tune-Yards (tUnE-yArDs). Although the former is from Kiev, Ukraine and the latter is from Oakland, I can see why these two acts were booked together. They are linked by really amazing, unique vocalists and lots of percussion, although they use these things in very different ways.

Dakha Brakha was up first. I’d seen a video of them online but that was only one sample of what turned out to be a very diverse set. I am in love with their tight harmonies and visual energy (and also those hats).

Kinda wish I’d gone up closer to really watch what they were doing. Come back to the Bay Area soon, Dakha Brakha!

And then Tune-Yards came out and brought the house (grove?) down. We watched the second half of the set from the side lawn, surrounded by dogs and dancing babies and guys who looked like Jason Mraz (ok, maybe there was just one of each of those). It’s a bummer that the below video cuts off abruptly, but I chose it because the lineup and vibe are closest to what they were at today’s show. There are a lot of YouTube videos where the background riff in the beginning is played by saxophones, but the vocal hocketing version is so cool! (Ethnomusicology majors love hocketing.)

For more about Stern Grove and the current season (this has been going on for 78 years!), click here.

The man who made music history

I generally would not use a word like “cool” to describe a legal document, but hey, look at this cool document!

The Beatles’ original management contract with Brian Epstein. “hereunto”!

“Why had I not signed it? I believe it was because even though I knew I would keep the contract in every clause, I had not 100 percent faith in myself to help the Beatles adequately. In other words, I wanted to free the Beatles of their obligations if I felt they would be better off.”
-Brian Epstein, A Cellarful of Noise, 1964

Oh Brian, I think it’s safe to say that you helped the Beatles more than adequately. And you sure did the rest of us a solid by making sure their music was heard.

This is long overdue, but in my next installment of Important Beatles People, I present to you: Mr. Brian Epstein.

Firstly, let’s acknowledge the fact that Brian was absolutely responsible for the Beatles’ rise to fame. He took a huge chance on them, having never managed a group before and after being told by friends and colleagues that the Beatles were “absolutely awful” (Alistair Taylor’s words, not mine). Regardless, he was enchanted by them and was determined to get them a record deal. Every single major label said no, but Brian kept going until he finally got a deal with lil’ old Parlophone (thanks to George Martin, also a huge part of the Beatles #dreamteam). Then, he steadily booked shows, tours, and TV appearances so that the band got more and more exposure. He stood by their side from the dingy Cavern Club all the way to Shea Stadium and beyond. He was the Beatles’ biggest fan. <3

Brian introducing the Beatles at the Majestic Ballroom, 1962….
….3 years later, at Shea Stadium

The Beatles adored him. Yes, they poked fun at him (like they did at each other, and pretty much everyone), but they had complete faith and trust in Brian, in both business and personal matters. He was best man for both Ringo & Maureen and John & Cynthia (who also asked him to be Julian’s godfather, awww). Looking at photos and video footage, the Beatles + Brian were pretty inseparable those first few years.

Brian with Ringo and Mo on their wedding day. So happy!

And most importantly: when things got rough, he was always right there in the thick of it with them. He literally took punches for them on the Philippines tour, and had the fun job of answering to the press after John’s infamous Jesus quote. Brian managed several other successful artists once the Beatles hit it big, but it’s obvious that they were his pride and joy. When the Beatles stopped touring and went on to focus on studio work, he more or less stayed out of their way in the studio, but did arrange the famous global broadcast of “All You Need is Love” and held a smashing album release party for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His story ends sadly and abruptly after that, with an overdose at age 32.

I have a lot of feelings about Brian Epstein. I think he and the Beatles were an unlikely but perfect match, a balance between his natural business smarts and their raw Liverpudlian energy. I think it is wretchedly unfair that he had to live in a certain amount of fear, being gay during a time when it was illegal in England (homosexuality in the country was decriminalized literally one month after his death). I think he was courageous for fighting so hard for the Beatles, and for devoting his entire career to their success. And I think he was a humble, dignified, and beautiful soul.

To finish, three lovely Brian pics (btw, the man was incapable of taking a bad picture. You know how there are so many awkward, dorky pictures of the Beatles? Not so with Brian. Even when he’s totally in the background of a photo, he looks positively dashing):

16th January 1964:  Band manager Brian Epstein (1935 - 1967) relaxing in Paris with Beatles members John Lennon (1940 - 1980) and Ringo Starr.  (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)
The most important manager in music history.

PS – This post inspired by The Fifth Beatle, a beautiful graphic novel about Brian Epstein which made me all weepy. Go read it.

SMiLE: An American Pop Symphony

Opening anecdote: This past week I went to San Francisco’s first cat cafe (don’t laugh, it is a real thing and it is awesome), and while I sat there cuddling with a cat named Stella1, the iPad-controlled sound system played “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows,” to which Alex nudged me and went, “Pet Sounds, get it?” I’m not sure if the folks at KitTea are that aware of their musical selections, but the point is: the Beach Boys’ music is ubiquitous, a staple of oldies stations everywhere, but *especially* in California. Growing up, I remember listening to K-Earth 101 and counting all the beaches in “Surfin’ USA” (getting especially excited when Del Mar and La Jolla came up). Among my first and favorite CDs was this greatest hits album, right up there with B*Witched2 and the Grease soundtrack.

And then, at some point after I’d started obsessing over the Beatles and other classic rock bands, I remember hearing Mike Love’s infamous RRHF speech and deciding (unfairly to Brian Wilson and the rest of the group) that the Beach Boys were just a bunch of bitter, delusional burnouts. So unfortunately until very recently, I never ventured beyond what was on K-Earth and that Greatest Hits CD, figuring (again, unfairly) that not much else in their repertoire was worth listening to.


BW in the studio, looking particularly Orbison-esque

Last weekend we saw Love & Mercy, the movie where Paul Danoand John Cusack play Brian Wilson in two different stages of his life: creative genius 1960s Brian and mentally unstable 1980s Brian, when he was under the control of creep machine Dr. Eugene Landy. It definitely opened my eyes to Brian’s life and struggles, but more importantly, it introduced me to a whole world of incredible music I’d never heard. Namely, the epic, hidden-in-the-vaults-for-40-years masterpiece that is SMiLE.

Holy moly, what a trip this album is. I’m ashamed to admit it took me this long to discover it. But I’ve been making up for my musical faux pas by listening to it religiously every single day this past week: on the way to work, on the way home from work, at home on the big speakers, and most recently on a drive to and from Santa Cruz. It is just…overwhelmingly good.

The story behind SMiLE is worthy of a whole post itself, but long story short: it was never released in the ’60s as planned, most of the tapes sat unheard for years, Brian released his own version in 2004 to critical acclaim, and then a slew of original Beach Boys material was released in 2011. I love the production on BW’s version, but it’s fascinating to hear the untouched recordings by the Beach Boys. My current favorite is “Surf’s Up,” which despite the title couldn’t be more different than the early Beach Boys’ surf music (equally beautiful is Brian’s demo of the same song). There are a lot of things I want to say about this album—like how I could listen to those vocal layers in the middle section of “Cabinessence” nonstop for hours, or how Van Dyke Parks’ otherworldly lyrics make me want to float away, or how this music would’ve blown people’s minds more than Sgt. Pepper had it been released back then4—but I’ve been sitting here way too long trying to put my reactions into words when I’d really just rather be listening to the whole thing over again.

To finish, here’s some cool studio footage of “Good Vibrations,” one of the few songs from this era that saw the light of day (and became a hit!) in the ’60s:

Footnotes (what am I, a liberal arts major??…yes)


[2] Here’s a throwback in case you forgot about B*Witched.

[3] After Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood and now this, I think Paul Dano is now officially the youngest actor I’ve ever really liked (a position previously held by Leo). He was perfect for the role of 1960s Brian, plus he actually learned the music and sang it, no small feat (love you Cusack, but I know you weren’t really playing that piano).

[4] It’s well documented that the Beach Boys and the Beatles consistently tried to one-up each other in the studio. Brian Wilson heard Rubber Soul and wrote Pet Sounds in response. The Beatles heard Pet Sounds and then made Sgt. PepperSmile would’ve come out after Sgt. Pepper – how might it have affected the Beatles’ next album, I wonder? Anyway, I have an obvious newfound respect for the Beach Boys’ music and certainly for Brian Wilson.

Mike Love is still a jerk, though.