The crowd was the real MVP for Celebration Bowl bands
Win or lose, bands go harder when fans get into their performances during and after the game
There were supporters of the North Carolina A&T State Aggies who didn’t hesitate to drive the 330 miles from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Atlanta to support their team in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl. And once fans of the Alcorn State Braves learned their team would be playing against the Aggies, they hit the road for 450 long miles to make it in time for the game.
For other alumni and fans of the teams who now call Atlanta home, it was easy to swipe tickets to support their alma maters upon learning who would be competing in the highly-anticipated black college bowl game.
The fan support, band directors and leaders say, is one constant that makes every game during the season — especially bowl games — even more special.
“It matters a lot,” said Alcorn State assistant band director Everson Martin. “I think if the crowd is feeling what you’re doing, they’re enjoying what you’re doing and you’re getting some type of reaction, that makes you pick up your feet a little bit higher. That makes you perform just a tad bit better. That makes you execute your maneuver just a tad bit better. Because you’re feeding off of the crowd participation, the excitement. The kids love it.”
And on this particular day at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the crowd of 31,672 was prepared for the game and the bands. The Alcorn State Braves entered the Celebration Bowl a crowd favorite after a dominating 9-4 season and finishing first in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) East division before beating Southern University in the SWAC Championship.
Sections that filled the fastest after the doors opened at 10:30 a.m. were ones that flanked both bands, which sat on opposite ends of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. By halftime, everyone was primed and ready — popcorn in hand — for a showdown that each band prepped for weeks in advance.
Both bands faced adversity while preparing for one of the largest games of the season. In Mississippi, The Sounds of Dyn-O-Mite were challenged by a scheduling conflict that fell right in the middle of practices.
“It was a task because some of the kids had to go home and had to come back,” Martin said. “It was kind of hard putting the show together, because you have different spots. You have to learn your spot on the field, what maneuvers you have to do and things of that nature, but we made it work. The kids came back in the middle of the week. We had to adjust and just make it work. Luckily, we have a lot of upperclassmen in the band who have been in the band two or more years, so that helps us out a great deal.”
In North Carolina, snowfall caused practices to be shorter than anticipated and required a quicker turnaround than usual.
“We had to do a whole bunch of different stuff this time,” said North Carolina A&T director of university bands Kenneth Ruff. “We had a whole weekend and two days during the week that we couldn’t practice, so we had to do some overtime and had to get some indoor facilities. It was different this time.”
But each band regrouped, practiced when they could and brought it together to give fans of each team a show they’d been looking forward to since teams were announced.
Cheers erupted from stands with each play on the field, but the bands sat relatively quiet until it was their time to shine. With less than five minutes left, the bands cleared the stands and flooded the sidelines in order to waste no time getting ready for the halftime show.
The Blue & Gold Marching Sound Machine, which ranked No. 7 in the latest ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings, was up first and started off with a jog onto the field. The noticeably larger crowd of Aggies fans cheered as the band launched into its first song and danced in their seats to The O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers.” The old-school sound continued with “Outstanding” by The Gap Band, then catered to the new generation with a dance breakdown to Drake’s “In My Feelings.”
“In some cases, we might do a new show, but today was the ‘best of’ show because we knew the forecast was calling for that,” Ruff said. “So our preparation was to go with something we’ve kind of already done and put some new flair on it.”
Once exiting the field after playing Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams,” it was time for The Sounds of Dyn-O-Mite to take the field. As high as their energy was, the band — led by its five drum majors — remained cool as they walked onto the field with precision.
“Halftime is a focus on us,” Alcorn State drum major Joshua Hood said. “We have to do our job, what we were required to come there for. As a drum major, it’s a good amount of pressure but throughout the season, I’ve worked on my nerves and how to channel them into positive energy and putting it out on the field.”
The band stuck with a mixture of old school and new school, incorporating classics for the older alumni and the most recent hits for the younger crowd. The band even switched up from its normal routine and surprised the crowd with a Christmas tune, The Jackson 5’s “Give Love on Christmas Day,” to bring holiday cheer to the fans.
“You definitely want to ‘get house,’ ” Martin said. “Getting house is crowd participation, crowd screaming, cheers. You definitely want to house out. So you want to think about your demographic and where you’re going. Of course, we’re in Atlanta. It’s a crunk city for the most part. Folks are kind of lively, so we can’t bore people to death. You gotta have something upbeat. You’ve got to do a dance routine or something to get the crowd into it. Also, with it being a bowl game, we have to think about our fans and the people that we cater to weekly throughout the season.”
For both bands, the roar of the crowd is something that never gets old, and propels the band to leap from a great show to an over-the-top performance.
Fans who had traveled for the game always consider the band the icing on the cake — especially if their team wins. Aggies alumna Deirdre Harrison traveled from Maryland to join a group of friends who were attending the game. Alums Jimmy Newkirk of Kennesaw, Georgia, and Bonnye Newkirk of Charlotte, North Carolina, are always willing to express their support for the Blue & Gold Marching Machine when they can.
“Living here in Kennesaw, I made five games this year,” Jimmy Newkirk said. “Three in Greensboro, one in Montgomery and here. I’m an active member of our alumni association. If you looked around the stadium, most of those [North Carolina A&T fans] traveled.”
“I donate to the band,” Bonnye Newkirk added. “I support the band and it takes money for them to travel.”
It’s this type of love that the drives the Blue & Gold Marching Machine to push harder. Ruff believes when the fans are interacting, the band is prompted to go above and beyond to provide a better show.
“The band responds,” Ruff said. “Everybody loves applause, so once the crowd is engaged and they start giving them that love, the band responds and they perform better.”
And the loyalty is serious business — even if it means controlling your bladder for the duration of the 15-minute performance. A fellow Aggies fan, Tiffany, learned the rules of the game from Jimmy Newkirk when she tried to leave her seat before the start of halftime.
“She was going to take a break to go to the bathroom and she was going to do it at halftime,” Jimmy Newkirk said. “That’s the one thing you don’t do.”
The second half of the game brought excitement and unpredictability for both sides. When a touchdown finally came Alcorn State’s way with less than five minutes left in the third quarter, the band and Alcorn State fans, previously silent, jovially perked back up. Just like that, it was a ballgame — and a party. There was a noticeable shift in the band’s energy. The Sounds of Dyn-O-Mite took advantage of quiet time to fill the stadium with hype songs. The team’s confidence seemed to have been renewed. The beginning of “Swag Surfin” followed a 54-yard run for a near-touchdown for Alcorn State. After closing the gap to a 1-point deficit, the Aggies stunned the crowd with a 79-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, taking the lead once again in a matter of seconds.
Just the day before, Hood recounted the times that this had happened to the Braves since he’d been in the band, and how he’d prepare if it were to happen again.
“I can’t remember too many times throughout the whole season when we’ve actually been down,” Hood said. “But when the football team is losing, you can feel it. So we have to step up and we have to start playing a song we know the crowd loves to get the crowd engaged again.”
The band, acting as the team’s last line of defense to keep the crowd going, would be prepared to do its job. Although the Aggies were the ones who came out on top after a close 24-22 finish, the bands stayed in place knowing the game, in a sense, still hadn’t ended.
As many fans left the stadium, a large number stayed in preparation for the 5th Quarter, where the teams delivered what seemed to be an extended halftime show, going back and forth with tunes ranging from ’90s hits to recent pop classics. The crowd finally cleared only after the last note was played.
Win, lose or draw, it’s the loyalty of fans that keeps the bands coming back stronger one note at a time.