Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, April 2, 2015

On the Pac-12's Basketball Bands

From time to time I've expressed my opinions on the basketball bands of the Pac-12.  Some of you enjoy these delves into band geekdom, and have requested more.  This post is for you.

Of course, I've also received the occasional push-back on those opinions, like I did last week when I agreed with Rush The Court's Andrew Murawa that the Arizona band appearing in Los Angeles was... less than awesome.  Maybe, in that light, I should provide my qualifications to comment on the league's pep bands, so that you can better understand where I'm coming from.

The large tuba player in the picture above is me. *waves* I played with the CU marching and basketball bands from 2002-2006.  During that time, I rose to become tuba section leader, and have stayed close to the program since graduation.  To this day, you can occasionally find me strapping up as part of the Silver Buffalo Alumni Basketball Band. While not an 'expert performer,' per se, I would consider myself an expert participant in all that is life as a basketball band geek. It's this experience and passion that underscores my opinions on the subject.

(Note on the label 'band geek:' I have never found this term to be offensive, and self-identify as such.  If you, as a band member, do find offense, I apologize, but would hope you understand that I use it here with love)

Of course, the very subject - the quality, or lack there of, of various collegiate pep bands - is itself highly subjective.  There are no right or wrong answers here, and, much like beauty, what you like in the arena is a very personal concept.

For me, I key on a few areas:
  1. I need to be able to hear you.  You could be the most technically brilliant set of performers around, but if you're not playing loud enough for a noisy, distractive environment, that brilliance is wasted.  Remember - you're at a basketball game; play like it.
  2. Play fast, damnit.  Get in, get out. You have my attention for about 80 seconds... get moving.  In my day, the CU band used to whip out 'Minnie the Moocher' each and every night.  Great song, but it dragged ass, and killed the mood.  Give it some gas, kids.
  3. You must be brass heavy.  All apologies to woodwinds, but... MOAR BRASS! Bonus points: The louder and fatter your tubas sound, the better.  
  4. Play the hits. Don't play some intricate, jazzy/blues track to indulge your music majors; I better know what I'm listening to.  Also, if you've got a great song you're known for, I'd better hear you playing it.  USC - I want to hear 'Tusk.'  Stanford - light up 'All Right Now.' Oregon - Stone Cold's entrance song, if you please.  But don't play something modern and popular just to play it.  You'd better have a good arrangement.
  5. ...but not just the top-40.  You should have more than a few songs that you play every game.  I used to mock Oklahoma mercilessly for having one - and only one - song in their book (you know the one).  Expand your horizons.
  6. Appropriate genres. In general, I prefer the following genres - funk, blues rock, disco, soul, 80s hair metal, big band/swing, and ska (highly underutilized).  Some hip hop, R&B, metal, and modern pop tracks (but those can get you in trouble with flobby arrangements).  These aren't requirements - the odd country song can be fun - but just what I prefer.  If you have a lot of ska tunes in your folder, you will win me heart over immediately.
Ideally, you should hear the bands in person, in their home arenas.  Judging a band over television is particularly unfair. A few years back, with CU playing WSU in Spokane, I commented on twitter that the Cougar band sounded like a middle school group.  That was more than hasty on my part - for all I know, the Pac-12 Network had some random intern setting up the band mic for that broadcast.  It's also unfair to judge a group based solely on their performance in tournaments.  Boiling a group down to fewer than 30 players removes a lot of the character and life of a full-piece performance. For example, while still very impressive in tournament scenarios, the 2012 CU band was far more impressive in the CEC, with their full 90+ tucked in the corner of a roiling mass of students.  The wall of sound that group created was unlike any other, and needed to be heard live.

Unfortunately, while I've heard every band in the league play in person (via the Pac-12 Tournament), I'm still deprived of their full-force effort.  (I'll be looking to rectify that in future years, eyeing more travel during January and February.)  Still, at the very least, the tournament in Vegas provides an equal-footing setting. While not perfect, it will at least provide a standard for comparison.  And so, based on my impressions from last month in Sin City, I have compiled a ranking of the league's pep bands for 2015.

A caveat - This is a particularly brutal way to judge musical groups, and I ask that you take this with a grain of salt.  It's purely a reflection of my id's interpretation of the tournament, obscured, in no small measure, by alcohol and sleep deprivation.  Really, there are no winners and losers here. Bands are there to enhance your enjoyment of the event, and, to that measure, every band in the Pac-12 hit their marks. Basketball in the Left Coast wouldn't be the same without any of them.

Without further ado:

1) Stanford

The Cardinal are the gold standard in the Pac-12.  No one has more fun, and that bleeds into my enjoyment of their product.  The damn Tree - notably the band's mascot, not the team's - also helps.  Leaves flopping, always spinning, it's an endearing part of the ensemble.  Oh, and don't forget the cowbell.  You can never have too much of that.  Loud, exuberant, fast-paced, and with a varied book. Just wonderful, the whole package.

2) Oregon

They have a great book, a great arrangement of players.  I kept wanting to turn against them, for Dana Altman reasons, but, damnit, they kept winning me over.  Out-played every band they came up against in Vegas; not kidding. That first trumpet either needs to learn to hold that high note on Stone Cold or hand it off to someone else, though.

3) Oregon State

Oregon State stole Dana Biggs, CU's former director, a few years ago, and their product has steadily improved, as a result.  I've always like Dana's tempos - lightning quick, and impactful - and his players at OSU have really taken to them.  The notes are crisp, clean, and they have the noise to back it up.  It doesn't hurt that the Kentucky product brought many of my old Colorado favorites with him to Corvallis, either. Solid package.

4) Washington

In a surprise, the Huskies caught my eye by having some of the best tubas in Las Vegas.  My word, could they play.  I honestly didn't pay much attention to the rest of the band, my ear was tuned to the big heavies in the back.  Beefy, brassy sound that thundered throughout the arena. Hell of a show, kids, keep up the good work!

5) CU

In 2012, I though Colorado boasted one of the best basketball bands in the whole country.  You may say 'oh, that's just you speaking as a faithful alum,' but I'd put that group up against any (even mighty VCU).  The intervening years haven't been kind, however.  Three directors in as many years have upended the apple cart, and there has been some noticeable slippage in the product.  The new guy (Dr Dockendorf) seems to have things on a positive track, and further continuity will help them regain their standing near the top of this league.

Still, a fun group to listen to.  Generally fun, peppy, fast, and brassy.  I'm a little too familiar with the book at this point, but I still like to hear hits like 'Separate Ways,' and 'Hey Pachuco.'


The Bruins are very technically good, playing all their songs at an elite level.  Some of the best pure musicians in the Pac-12.  If this were a concert setting, I'd have them much higher on this list. The problem is they're very quiet. I have to strain myself to hear them, even from good seats.  Maybe it's a product of playing for all the blue hairs in Pauley, but they need to be able to turn the amp up to 11 once they hit the Strip.

7) ASU

I found myself really liking this group, much to my surprise.  Nice and brassy, with a fun book.  They make for a really entertaining bunch. However, they have an Achilles' heel.  Wayyyyyyyy too much electric bass. It's distracting.  Pull that beast back in, yo.

8) Arizona

I really like the drummers from Arizona.  As long as I've been listening, they lay on the cymbals, creating a very unique sound.  I can always tell when 'Zona is playing, just from the tone of the kit. The rest of the band, though... *shrugs*.  Pretty quiet, and a little plain musically. The self-indulgent trombone in the first row doesn't do them any favors; dude loves himself some him.

9) Cal

Another band where I kind of just *shrug*.  With the hats and flair, they seem like a corporatized version of Stanford.  Kind of quiet and reserved, I lose track of them, and start staring at Oski... damn is that bear creepy.

10) USC

Speaking of corporatized fun, the USC band gets a lot of pub, but, much like their basketball program, are never what they could/should be.  They're probably down here simply because I expect more from a leading brand.

11) Utah

Honestly can't remember what they sounded like.  I've been wracking my brain, and simply can't remember. I had to sit in the cheap seats for both of their games, so maybe it's just that I was too far removed from their sound, but I'm drawing a blank.  I'll pay closer attention to them next March - they should probably be higher up this list, as a result.

12) WSU

No, they're not the middle school band I made them out to be a few years back.  Much better than that, really.  But, they're still solidly at the bottom of this list.  I will say, however, that they have the best free throw chant in the league.  'You let the whole team down' owns.

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