Music News & Reviews

‘Drumline Live’ brings marching band excitement to SLO stage

“Drumline Live” comes to the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande on Monday.
“Drumline Live” comes to the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande on Monday.

Marching band music doesn’t have to be boring.

Just ask Don P. Roberts. He’s the creator, director and music director of “Drumline Live,” a dynamic stage show that celebrates the precise percussion and funky footwork of the Historically Black College and University marching band tradition.

“We’ve got the lights. We’ve got the sound. We’ve got the Hollywood aspect,” Roberts said. “What I tell audiences is, ‘Be prepared to be surprised.’ 

Roberts was the director of an esteemed high school marching band program in Georgia when Hollywood producer Dallas Austin tapped him as executive band consultant for “Drumline.” The 2002 movie stars Nick Cannon as a Harlem street drummer who joins the marching band at a Southern university.

“They needed someone that understood all the elements of the marching band,” explained Roberts, adding that he taught Orlando Jones, who plays the university’s band director, how to conduct. (Roberts appears in the film as one of Jones’ assistants.)

It was on the set of “Drumline” that Roberts realized “how cool it would be to do something like this on stage,” he said, bringing the excitement of the football field to the concert hall. After he and his team tested the theatrical waters with the show “Halftime Live,” “Drumline Live” debuted in 2008.

Over the years, “Drumline Live” has toured the United States, South Korea and Japan, logging more than 300 shows across the country. In each community, Roberts said, he aims to share the HBCU halftime experience with concertgoers.

“In some cases, it’s the first time they see this type of show,” Roberts explained.

“We want to connect with the audience emotionally — in terms of making them laugh, making them cry, making them dance,” he said. “I want everybody to feel like (they’re) part of the show.”

Unlike the staid halftime shows of yesterday, which featured polyester-clad kids marching stiffly in formation, “Drumline Live” features colorful routines choreographed by Jacques A. Bell. A high-stepping drum major leads a dedicated cast of dancers, singers and instrumentalists, most of them graduates of HBCU schools.

Musically, the program mixes Top 40 hits with more traditional marching band repertoire. A John Philip Sousa march might be followed by a song by Beyoncé or Chris Brown.

“We choose our music very carefully in terms of the demographics of our audience,” Roberts explained. “Whether you’re 5 or you’re 95, you can find something to relate to in this show.”

For Roberts, “Drumline Live” is the latest in a line of marching band-related projects, including collaborations with the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Falcons.

Roberts served as a consultant for the 2010 ESPNU series “The Battle” and the 2014 VH1 movie “Drumline: A New Beat.” More recently, he worked on “The Quad,” a drama about the newly elected president (Anika Noni Rose) of the fictional Georgia A&M University that premieres on BET this month.

“I am a music educator at heart. That has not changed,” said Roberts, who oversees the instrumental music department at Georgia’s DeKalb County School District.

But education, he added, can be fun.

 ‘Drumline Live’ is a roller coaster ride,” Roberts said, digging into the amusement park metaphor. “You get on the ride and you’re a little nervous. You get to the top of the peak of the roller coaster and you scream and shout. And when you get done, for some reason, you want to do it all again.”

‘Drumline Live’

3 and 7 p.m. Monday

Clark Center for the Performing Arts, 487 Fair Oaks Ave., Arroyo Grande

$45 to $75

805-489-9444 or