Smile Politely

We’re loyal to you, Illinois: A recap of the Marching Illini’s 2023 halftime shows

View of Zuppke Field at Memorial Stadium, University of Illinois. The Marching Illini band is in a block-I formation on the field. Most of the field is cast in shadow. The stands are full of spectators.
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With last Saturday’s heartbreaking loss to Northwestern, another Illini football season has come to a close. Barring the generosity of a bowl committee that can overlook a 5-7 record, last Saturday represented the final football halftime performance of the season for the Marching Illini

Throughout my years as an Illini football fan, the one constant has been the guarantee for a high-quality performance from the Marching Illini before, during, and after each home football game. Through the ups and downs of the coaching carousel, winning and losing seasons, scorching hot September afternoons, and freezing cold November evenings, the Marching Illini entertain and engage faithful fans week in and week out.

I owned not one, but two different CDs with Marching Illini performances in my childhood, and until I made the shortsighted decision to migrate my music library to Spotify (where niche albums featuring the Marching Illini are much less prevalent), I had an expansive track listing at my disposal for year-round enjoyment of the band. Even today, my friends and family can attest to my frustration when the band’s performance of “I’m Just a Gigolo” gets cut short due to a faster-than-usual media time out. 

But I digress — I know that I am not alone in my adoration for the Marching Illini — they are a fan favorite both in Champaign and beyond.

Just one year younger than the University of Illinois itself, the Marching Illini were founded in 1868 and boast many “firsts” in the collegiate band record book, including the first school song (Illinois Loyalty), the first band to have its own building (since 1930), the first female drum major in the Big 10 (Debbie Soumar in 1977), and the first band to have a website (1994). This is far from an exhaustive list, but it certainly underscores the staying power of the Marching Illini. For more on the Marching Illini’s history, I would recommend checking out the band’s website — did I mention it was the first of its kind?

I had the pleasure of attending all seven home football games this season, and was adamant that I was in my seat during halftime to take in each week’s unique show. The variety of halftime performances throughout the season offered something for fans of all ages and interests. 

In the event that you were unable to attend a game this year, or simply want to relive some of this year’s performances, I’ve broken down the highlights of each performance below. 

Saturday, September 2nd: Illinois vs. Toledo

Final Score: Illinois 30, Toledo 28

For the season opener against Toledo (whose only loss came to Illinois, by the way), the Marching Illini performed a show entitled “The Music of Rush.” 

In spite of my Generation Z status, I like to consider myself somewhat well-versed in the classic rock genre. However, I’m not sure that I could name a Rush song other than “Closer to the Heart” off the top of my head. The Marching Illini performed “YYZ” and the “Spirit of Radio.” Although I was not intimately familiar with either of these songs, it was an enjoyable performance, both musically and visually, thanks to the sharp formations from the Marching Illini.

Saturday, September 16th: Illinois vs. Penn State

Final Score: Penn State 30, Illinois 13

In a game that was originally slated for FOX’s Big Noon Kick-Off Show prior to being moved to Boulder, CO to board the Deion Sanders hype train, the Marching Illini performed a Taylor Swift-themed show. 

As we know “All Too Well,” 2023 has been the year of Taylor Swift. I have been a Taylor Swift fan for many years and was excited to see the Marching Illini’s take on her music. Catering to old and new fans alike, the Marching Illini began with “…Ready for It?” and concluded their performance with an epic medley of “Love Story” and “You Belong with Me” that got the crowd singing. The closing formation of the band got the crowd’s approval, as well.

Saturday, September 23rd: Illinois vs. Florida Atlantic

Final Score: Illinois 23, Florida Atlantic 17

The Illini football team bounced back from a disappointing loss to Penn State in the prior week, while the Marching Illini entertained the scores of out-of-town fans in attendance for the annual Band Day halftime show. 

Bands from all parts of the state of Illinois joined the Marching Illini to perform Camila Cabello’s “Don’t Go Yet” before transitioning to Meghan Trainor’s “Made You Look.” Much to the joy of the east sideline ticket holders, the band turned around and played to both sides of the stadium. The sheer size of the marching contingent, as well as the coordination between the various bands, always impresses me on Band Day. 

Friday, October 6th: Illinois vs. Nebraska

Final Score: Nebraska 20, Illinois 7

In their sole Friday night home football performance of the year, the Marching Illini performed another classic rock themed show, “The Music of Pink Floyd.” 

Reflecting on my thoughts above, maybe I’m not as big of a classic rock fan as I thought. I have exactly three Pink Floyd songs saved in my Spotify library. I’ll cross my fingers and hope for an Eagles or Boston-themed show next year. As expected, Marching Illini put on a great performance with entertaining formations for even the most casual of Pink Floyd fans, opening the show by forming “The Dark Side of the Moon” album cover.

Saturday, October 21st: Illinois vs. Wisconsin

Final Score: Wisconsin 25, Illinois 21

In spite of a forgettable fourth quarter that led to an unfortunate Illini loss, the Marching Illini and the Alumni Band put on a great show, playing “Mambo” from West Side Story

The further I get in writing this article, the more I begin to question my qualifications. Excluding high school productions, I’ve seen just two musicals in my lifetime, and unfortunately, West Side Story is not one of them. Nevertheless, including the Alumni Band in the halftime performance of “Mambo,” while building upon the already impressive formations of the student band, made this another great show from the Marching Illini.

Saturday, November 11th: Illinois vs. Indiana

Final Score: Illinois 48, Indiana 45 (OT)

In one of the better-attended home games this season, the Marching Illini performed a joint Veterans Day and Dad’s Day show. 

This was probably my favorite halftime show of the season. The overlap between the Marching Illini’s Veteran’s Day and Dad’s Day performances led to a packed halftime show in the best way possible. The band shifted its show slightly from previous years, opting for a moving performance of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and an upbeat version of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” that differed slightly from the standard patriotic medley that the band plays before each game. The formation of the American flag as the band triumphantly played the final notes of its opening song led to a rousing round of applause. Following its patriotic performance, the Marching Illini shifted to its standard Dad’s Day show, which includes a medley of “The Chicken Dance,” “The Hustle,” “YMCA,” and “Theme from New York, New York.” If you have never seen the iconic Dad’s Day kick-line to the closing song, I would encourage you to watch this week’s performance.

Saturday, November 25th: Illinois vs. Northwestern

Final Score: Northwestern 45, Illinois 43

In their final home performance of the year, the Marching Illini seniors were given the opportunity to choose two pieces to perform for their final act on Zuppke Field. The seniors selected portions of “The Music of Rush” from the 2023 season opener, and excerpts from the 2021 halftime show, “The Music of Latin America.” 

Ah, Rush. Not what I had hoped for as the opening number for the final halftime show of the year, but setting aside my anti-Rush bias, it was still an entertaining performance. The Marching Illini’s second performance was a powerful piece titled “El Toro Caliente” that highlighted the brass section. I must admit, this song did not stick out in my memory back in 2021 when it was first performed, but it was a great choice by the seniors to conclude another football season.

Marching Illini Pregame Show, Saturday, November 25th: Illinois vs. Northwestern

It took me all season, but I finally got my act together and made it out of Lot 31 in time to see the band’s pregame performance. The Marching Illini’s pregame entrance has remained largely unchanged throughout recent history, with the exception of the band’s entry onto the football field. Marching on from underneath the Horseshoe, the band performed a stirring show that included its new-ish opening number, “Oskee Fanfare,” as well as “Revised Entrance No. 3,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” the opponent’s fight song, “Illinois Loyalty,” and “William Tell.” (Side note: I won’t admit how many years of attending basketball and football games that it took me to realize that the opening tune is the official song of our great state.)

No matter the game’s final result, a day where I can take in both the pregame and halftime performances of the Marching Illini is a good day in my book.

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