By Amy Schmidt
Three Cardinal charter buses and a Vicksburg Band semi-trailer began the trip to New Orleans leaving the high school nest very early Saturday morning, Saturday, December 28 with the Big Red Machine’s 140 band members and 20 chaperones.
They headed toward Chicago but veered south toward Memphis, hitting six states on the first day – Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and crossed the Mississippi River twice before the first stop in Memphis.
Both jazz bands, Early Dawgs and Top Dawgs, played amazing sets at Alfred’s on Beale Street. Live music came pouring out onto the street even though the air was a little misty. The group enjoyed exploring the Home of the Blues seeing street performers, the neon lights and being part of the live music.
The entourage arrived in New Orleans the next evening, Sunday, and checked into the Hilton right on the river. They loaded back onto the buses to head east a bit out to the Bayou Barn – a rustic, open-air restaurant with great food, yard games, and decks overlooking the alligators in the creek. The Big Red Machine, the BRM, had the whole place reserved for an evening of fun, food, and dancing. Band Director Ben Rosier encouraged (directed) all the kids to the dance floor. By the end of the evening the band members had experienced the fun that can be had by dancing with your friends and your band director.
Monday morning came early as the group traveled out to Viet park in east New Orleans for a planned service project. The whole morning was devoted to this community. One group worked to clear the park of overgrown brush, invasive species and litter. Another painted multiple benches and picnic tables. Another spread new mulch in the playground area to bring it up to code. And yet another group trekked nearby to the local high school to prepare their gym for a massive paint job.
Then the Big Red Machine went straight to what looked like a flash mob performance in Jackson Square in the French Quarter. The buses rolled up to the curb in the very busy area, the band members jumped out, grabbed their instruments and quickly assembled on the stone steps as people cleared the area. The band then broke into a crowd favorite, “Little Liza Jane”. Still in their service project clothes, with paint on their hands (as well as a few faces) and dirt on their shoes, the Big Red Machine entertained the crowd for about 20 minutes before melting away down the sidewalk along Decatur Street to the buses stationed about five blocks away. It was back to the hotel for a short break before heading out on the Natchez River Boat for a dinner cruise on the Mississippi River.
The last day of 2019 started with a halftime rehearsal for all the participating high school bands at the local West Jefferson high school. Then it was a quick change into uniforms, and the BRM was headed to the Sugar Bowl Parade staging areas on the east end of The French Quarter. While waiting for the parade to start (which is rather variable in the New Orleans laid-back style), the BRM engaged in a face off – led by the drum line – with a local high school band. While the local group played with spirit, the BRM showed them how it’s done. When the parade finally kicked off, a group of BRM supporters and chaperones waiting nearby in Jackson Square were flabbergasted when everyone previously on the sidewalks piled into the street – filling it entirely! The Vicksburg audience all looked at each other with disbelief. It was shared that New Orleanians fully engage with their parades – preferring to cheer, high-five, and even dance with the bands and floats up close. The floats barely part the crowds as they toss things like foam stadium fingers, footballs, packets of coffee, drink containers, and the requisite beaded necklaces. Many band members shared that it was the best parade experience they’d ever had.
New Year’s Eve was celebrated with a masquerade themed party for the high schools who marched in the parade. Fittingly, the BRM was first out on the dance floor in their masks and finery and last to leave singing their signature “Hey….Hey, Hey Baby” – only missing the usual baritone sax accompaniment. Many rang in the New Year watching a beautiful fireworks show over the Mississippi.
The first day of 2020 came very early for the BRM. They all made a 6:30 a.m. call time after the midnight fireworks to head to the Superdome for halftime practice with the other seven bands. Being the first band to arrive allowed them to experience being on the field of an enormous, entirely empty 73,208-seat venue.
After practice, it was back to the hotel to check out before noon. With a few hours of free time, groups went out to explore the city. Several joined band assistant Jake Munson for what was coined the “Munson Marathon” tour of The French Quarter. They were all back on the buses by 4 p.m. to head to the Sugar Bowl.
At the Sugar Bowl, the BRM joined several other high schools from around the country in a combined halftime show performance of Aretha Franklin’s Respect and Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. After the Sugar Bowl ended with a Georgia Bulldog win, the BRM loaded onto the three Cardinal buses for a late-night start towards home.
After around 20 hours on the road, the BRM was greeted by a police and fire escort into Vicksburg where their fans awaited with cheers and signs of support. Although exhausted, the warm welcome put a smile on the kids’ faces and reminded them all what an amazing community they have.
Notes from the author who was one of the chaperones: “The kids behaved beautifully,” they kept a positive attitude and got to work on time. They were professionals and just rolled with it. The Georgia Bulldog band does the same stand cheer that the BRM does, so they all went along with it, both being Bulldogs. The instrument trailer was impressive as it rolled into each stop. It was parked next to the Superdome in a visible spot and driven there by a band parent volunteer, Lee Goodwin, whose daughter, Samantha Masheris, plays alto sax.