ESTES PARK, Colo. -- Making their sixth annual appearance, the Combat Center Band performed four days and nights of concerts and parades as part of the 30th annual Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Highland Festival in Estes Park, Colo., Sept. 7-10.
Serving as the anchor band for ceremonies, Combat Center Marines were joined by three other musical units from around the U.S. and Canada in the nightly "Tattoo" field concerts, as well as daily morning ceremonies. The 3rd Army Infantry Regiment "Old Guard" Fife and Drum Corps was the only other band besides the Marines to return to the festival from last year. The Combat Center Band is the only musical unit to be invited back for more than two consecutive years.
The highland festival is one of the largest of its kind in the country. It is a celebration of Celtic heritage attended by about 200,000 people each year, and is complete with bagpipes, meat pies, haggis’, highland sports and kilts. The rain brought through to the area by what was tropical storm John in the Pacific Ocean posed a new challenge for the ceremonies this year.
Despite the rain, which many said only added to the traditional atmosphere of the British Isles, attendance was not down as patrons showed up in rain gear for the event, festival coordinators said.
The Combat Center Band, who traveled nearly 1,000 miles to the festival, had 12 major performances during their stay in Estes Park, almost exclusively in their crisply-pressed blue-white dress uniforms. For every outdoor performance they had at the festival, they were met with rain.
"What makes Estes Park a unique experience is the international flavor of it," said Staff Sgt. Joe Streeter, Combat Center Band drum major. "The heritage, the different groups coming together from other countries is great.
"I see it very much in Scottish and Irish heritage as they live by their traditions and what came before so similarly to the way the Marine Corps does," Streeter continued. "They have the highland games and they still wear their kilts and respect their traditions."
The four main bands of the festival were joined together in what was called the "massed bands,” which marched together and played traditional Scottish and Irish songs such as “Scotland the Brave,” “Flowers of the Forest,” “The Black Bear,” “Prince Edward Isle” and “Amazing Grace.”
Each of the bands also had their own individual field shows during the evening Tattoo and the morning concerts. The Combat Center Band, who were said to be the talk of the show last year, changed their hit lineup to add more current, upbeat tunes and jazz numbers.
They also were part of a 1.5-mile parade, which had thousands of people lining the streets and cheering them on.
Each song the Marines played, both for the Tattoo and mornings, had the crowd on their feet for standing ovations. The band left the field each time to “The Marine’s Hymn” and were always nearly drowned out by the cheers and applause from the audience.
"I think the unit is simply tremendous right now," said Streeter, who has helped prepare his Marines over past weeks for the trip. "It’s obvious from the response of the crowd, because when the crowd is louder than the band, you know you’re doing something right."
The band faced other challenges during the trip such as a demanding schedule, unpredictable and often wet weather, and constant maintenance of their uniforms. For many of the band members, many of whom arrived in the last three months, their time in Estes Park has been one of the toughest things they have done thus far with the band.
The trip comes at the peak of the band’s travel season and only shortly after they played at a highland festival in Pleasanton, Calif., over Memorial Day weekend and in Denver for the 1st Marine Division Association reunion Aug. 24 to 27. The musicians have had little or no breaks in past weeks because of their busy schedule.
"This show is very hard on a professional level," said Sgt. Matt Heen, a 28-year-old tuba player with the band who has played in Estes Park five times. "Every day you have to be ready in uniform for performances, and the whole thing is hard physically and mentally and takes a lot out of you.
"This year was the first time I’ve ever seen it rain this much," he said. "That’s very hard because it affects some of the instruments. For every performance it rained, and whether we were in the grass or the dirt something would always get on our white trousers, but they have to be perfect for the next time. I had my trousers in the sink scrubbing with detergent to lift some of the stains some nights."
One of the most memorable aspects of the trip for the Marines was attending the nightly Ceilidh (pronounced "kay-lee",) a traditional Scottish party attended by musicians, athletes, benefactors and other guests to the festival at night after the Tattoo.
"The Ceilidh is a party with drinking, dancing and a lot of fun where everyone goes to unwind after a long day of work," said Heen, a Williston, N.D., native.
One addition to the Ceilidhs people seemed to enjoy was the "party band," a small ensemble of about 10 Marines who perform lively numbers to smaller audiences and got the crowd of about 200 people on their feet dancing and singing. They played a mix of Motown, jazz, revamped versions of their regular concert songs and a few satirical songs for the Celtic crowd.
"The party band comes out at the Ceilidh and they bring so much energy to that crowd," said Heen. "They are not in uniform for that, so it’s a much more personal experience for the people there. When they step out there, the crowd knows something special is going on.
"What else is neat about the party band is they have not changed much in the past few years, but every time it looks like the first time they perform," he continued. "They interact with the crowd and it makes people feel like they are a part of it."
Another source of pride for Combat Center Marines is their relationship with the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, who they first teamed up with for last year’s performance.
"The Old Guard is one of the most outstanding groups of musicians I have met," said Streeter. "Those guys are unbelievable, but they feel the same way about us. They are specialty musicians from the Military District of Washington and we’re just ‘Joe Schmoe’ Marines, but they think the world of us, and we think the world of them."
The Marines departed Colorado Sept. 11, spending more than 12 hours traveling back to the Combat Center, arriving Sept. 12 around 1:30 a.m. for a well-earned break.