Mention college marching bands, and you’ll probably call to most people’s minds either longstanding Power Five program bands (think Ohio State, Oklahoma, or Georgia) or leading HBCU bands (think Florida A&M, Jackson State, or Grambling). These bands have national—even international—reputations for good reason. But my focus here is on a third, less common type: the corps-style band. Inspired by Drum Corps International (DCI), these bands tend to be based in colleges with FBS Group of Five, FCS, or Division II or III football programs whose lack of century-old marching band traditions like those in the Big Ten has enabled them to embrace marching innovation over tradition. Here are twelve corps-style college band shows that impressed me this season, presented in alphabetical order, which lets me start with the band I played in back in the ’90s!
Furman University Paladin Regiment – Divas Through the Decades
Home to DCI Hall of Fame arranger Jay A. Bocook for most of the last four decades, the Paladin Regiment became nationally known for recording marching music promo albums for Jenson Publications in the 1980s. More recently, the Greenville, South Carolina–based band caught the attention of CollegeMarching.com, which called it a “hidden gem band from South Carolina.” Furman continues to impress with its melding of popular music and precision drill under Director of Bands Dr. Sue Samuels. Divas Through the Decades sprawls from 1976 to 2016 with selections by Vicki Sue Robinson, Whitney Houston, Carry Underwood, and Lizzo. At 100 members, the Furman band is the smallest on my list but still cranks out a big sound and manages to sound twice its size toward the end of Underwood’s song at 7:28.
Jacksonville State University Marching Southerners – Fate of the Gods
The Marching Southerners of Jacksonville, Alabama, have been producing outstanding corps-style shows for decades, and Fate of the Gods is among its best. The Southerners embrace challenging drill despite fielding 450+ members – including the thirty who march with JSU’s legendary, hefty Conn 20J concert tubas. From its soaring opener (Hans Zimmer’s “The Battle” from Gladiator) through impressive arrangements of Robbie van Leeuween’s “Venus” and Enya’s “Watermark” to its fierce presentation of Thomas Bergersen’s “Clock Tower Parade,” Fate of Gods lives up to the hype of its “epic” evocation of Ares, Venus, Poseidon, and Zeus.
James Madison University Marching Royal Dukes
The Marching Royal Dukes from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, celebrated their 50th season this year. Self-proclaimed as “Virginia’s Finest,” the MRDs are “493 strong,” and indeed they practically turn the field purple as they sprawl end zone to end zone in Bridgeforth Stadium. The band’s sound is full, rich, and immersive. This year’s show includes Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” “25 of 6 to 4” by the band Chicago, songs from the musical Chicago, Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Fire of Eternal Glory,” Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” and “Get It On” by Bill Chase.
Liberty University Spirit of the Mountain – Sunny with a Chance
From the moment its 260 members take the field during the show announcements and pre-recorded intro music, the Spirit of the Mountain is quite nearly a perpetual motion machine. The Lynchburg, Virginia–based Liberty band has most of the expected corps-style features: a themed show, drill that begins during the introduction, electronic modulation, amplification, and continuous marching, with members sometimes simultaneously marching at different speeds. This year’s show, Sunny with a Chance, includes selections with weather-related titles by Michael Bublé, Bill Withers, Electric Light Orchestra, Rihanna, Hunter Hayes, Elton John, The Beach Boys, and Katrina & the Waves.
Missouri State University Pride Marching Band – First Circle
This year’s Missouri State University Pride exhibition show, First Circle, features the music of Missouri-born 20-time Grammy winner Pat Metheny. The band’s 300 members uncoil from four tight circles near the four corners of the field in a double-time step as they converge around the battery at the center. Members’ choreographed poses take full advantage of the sharp contrasts of their maroon-and-white uniforms during the announcer’s introduction to create dazzling visuals. The announcer’s close coincides with a powerful stationary opening statement framed by the flutter of purple flags of the guard. From there, the show maintains a consistently brisk pace that showcases the band’s corps-style marching.
Riverside City College Marching Tigers – Music for the Soul
The RCC Marching Tigers are the only community college band on my list. Founded in 1984, the Riverside, California, band has performed on multiple continents and in numerous Hollywood movies and television shows, and it has been almost a fixture in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena since the ’90s. Since 2016 the band has been under the direction of James Rocillo, who has served on the brass staff of the Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps since 2008, helping that corps win seven DCI World Championships. This year’s show, Music for the Soul, features Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” and Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” and closes with Ojos de Brujo’s “Todo Tiende,” which includes a great saxophone quintet.
The World Famous Towson University Marching Band – On Earth
The World Famous Towson University Marching Band (yes, that’s the official name!) formed in 1979, making it one of the nation’s newer marching bands. The 270-member band from Maryland exemplifies corps-style marching with this elaborate exhibition show that includes vocals, electronics, guitars, and plenty of solos and sectional features. Supporting the show’s theme are: “Earth Song” by Michael Jackson, “Welcome to Paradise” by Green Day, “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons, and “So the World Ends” by Britney Spears.
University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band – Spellbound
The University of Delaware fields one of the best corps-style marching bands in the Middle Atlantic. This year’s UDMB exhibition show Spellbound, described as “our answer to Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings,” combines the music of Carl Orff, Steven Reineke, John Barnes Chance, a-ha, Percy Sledge, and Robert Sheldon into a visual treat of fantastical characters, imaginative drill (including brass sectional pods that echo each other), and crisp percussion in the battery and front ensemble alike.
University of New Haven Chargers Marching Band – Fire
The Chargers Marching Band is by far the youngest ensemble in my list. The band started in 2009 with only twenty members and swelled to 200 in just five years. This year they march 268! In this year’s exhibition show, the New Haven, Connecticut–based band enters from the right end zone in a scatter drill set to an electric guitar and mallet percussion arrangement of Pitbull’s “Fireball” played by the front ensemble. The show that follows captures the Fire theme through selections from Manuel de Falla to Elvis Presley to Adele. The Chargers’ white plumes and yellow cape trim break the monochromatic effect of blue uniforms against their home field’s blue Sprinturf. For better audio quality and higher camera angle, see their Allentown, PA, exhibition performance.
University of North Alabama Marching Pride – RESPECT
The 250-member UNA Marching Pride‘s exhibition show is titled RESPECT in lyrical reference to Aretha Franklin. It melds more than a dozen iconic female artists’ music from over the past forty years. Opening with “Firework” by Katy Perry, the band explores hitmakers ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Barbra Streisand to Whitney Houston to Madonna to Shania Twain to Beyoncé.
West Chester University Incomparable Golden Rams Marching Band – Guardians
The 300-member Incomparable Golden Rams Marching Band from West Chester, Pennsylvania, began to reflect drum corps influences in the 1970s and in more recent decades has become one of the mostly overtly corps-style bands in the nation. The band has not been a bowl game since the Tangerine Bowl in 1968 because of the WCU football team’s move to Division II, but it has since made many appearances of national renown, including in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Philadelphia Eagles halftimes, and Bands of America competitions. The 2021 show, Guardians, is arguably the most visually appealing of the year, with its bright-orange geometrical props and gray-clad guard contrasting with a literal rainbow of flags, and the music is brilliantly executed from ethereal introduction to driving finale.
Western Carolina University Pride of the Mountains – Invincible
Tiny Cullowhee, North Carolina, has an unlikely claim to fame – the “World’s Largest Funk-Rock Band,” or “The Baddest Band in the Land.” No idle boast, the band, officially named the Pride of the Mountains, has become the face of WCU far beyond Appalachia, making multiple trips to the Macy’s Thanksgiving and Rose Bowl Parades since 2011 and regular exhibition appearances at the Bands of America Grand Nationals. Invincible applies the Pride’s trademark high-tempo drill, electric-guitar and electronics fusion, wall of sound, and theatrical front ensemble to the music of Alanis Morrisette, Lindsey Sterling, the Beatles, Kelly Clarkson, the Jackson Five, Aretha Franklin, Ellie Goulding, and Andra Day.