When UNLV and Jackson State University kick off the football season on September 1, it’s going to be a spectacle—but probably not because of what happens during the game. Jackson State posted a 3-6 record in the Southwestern Athletic Conference last year, and the last time the Tigers played a Division I opponent outside the SWAC they got blown out, 70-14, by Middle Tennessee in their 2015 season opener. So despite UNLV’s meager football reputation, the contest is likely to be a Rebels’ rout.
The real fireworks, however, will detonate during halftime, when the Jackson State marching band turns the Sam Boyd Stadium turf into a stage 100 yards long. Dubbed the “Sonic Boom of the South,” the JSU band is a historic act with roots dating back to the 1940s. Since its inception, the program has been at the forefront of the marching movement at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and to this day the Boom is a huge draw.
The mix of precise musicianship, high-energy performance (including the group’s signature “Tiger Run-Out,” a quick-stepping move that kicks off each set) and expert showmanship sets the Sonic Boom apart from other halftime acts, and fans in attendance would be wise to remain seated when the second quarter ends. The show is that good.
“We’re going to hit the ground running and do what we do,” Jackson State director of bands O’Neill Sanford says. “We’re going to play some “America the Beautiful,” some patriotic stuff. And there’s probably a large Hispanic population, so we’re going to play some malagueña. Then we’re going to play some rhythm and blues and pop, and some modern tunes that people will recognize. We’re hoping it’s a repertoire that will touch everybody.”
Sanford is also approaching the event as an opportunity. The last time the Jackson State football team played at UNLV was in 1975, and the band didn’t travel to the game. This time around, the Boom is playing at a free pep rally the night before the game at the Pearson Community Center (6 p.m., 1625 W. Carey Ave.), and Sanford plans to have recruiting tables set up for locals who might be interested in trying out.
“Recruiting musicians out of Las Vegas is something that has been on my radar screen the last couple of years,” Sanford says. “I understand the Las Vegas public school system has a tremendous amount of music programs, and part of my job is being a principal recruiter. So [the pep rally] was an important reason why we’re coming to Las Vegas.”
Making the cut at Jackson State is not easy. Many members of the Sonic Boom are on scholarship, and JSU only accepts the best of the best. And it’s a big deal when the band hits the road. Sanford has been holding auditions to whittle the 300-member band down to a lean traveling troupe of about 230 for the Vegas trip, because the Boom has “only” two airplanes at its disposal.
That commitment to excellence is why the most exciting formations on Thursday will come during halftime, when the Sonic Boom of the South struts to a beat sure to be hotter than the expected 100-degree temperature at game time.
Sanford thinks the spectators will be in for an experience unlike anything else Las Vegas has to offer.
“They’re going to see a lot of excitement and hear a band that plays with a lot of intensity and passion. We want to get people to their feet and applauding. We hope that they feel us musically. The band has a big sound. Showmanship, musicianship and excitement. That’s what we do.”
UNLV vs. Jackson State
Sept. 1, 7 p.m., Sam Boyd Stadium, $14-$45, 702-739-3267, UNLVtickets.com.