In rotation

Not much to say these days (i.e., too freakin’ busy to think!), but here are a few songs in rotation, in case anyone’s interested:

  1. “Intervention” – Arcade Fire (in fact, the whole damn Neon Bible CD is brill)
  2. “Herculean” – The Good, The Bad and The Queen
  3. “Sea Legs” – The Shins
  4. “Muzzle of Bees” – Wilco
  5. “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)” – The Ramones (Annabel absolutely loves the movie School of Rock and this great song is in it, which prompted me to look it out)

Always like to hear what other people are listening to, so feel free to fire away.


People who say, “I don’t watch a lot of TV, but did you see last night’s episode of . . .” are invariably in a state of denial. The truth is they watch as much TV as they possibly can. They love TV, but they hate admitting it.

I admit it: I really like “American Idol.” Sure, it’s full of treacly tunes and the whole thing is one giant money-making engine that started with “Pop Idol” in the UK and now is in just about every country with electricity on earth. You can hate it, but you have to admit that the talent is at times awesome. Everyone who has performed on a stage in front of a crowd – and just about every one of you have – knows just how hard it is to deliver a tune to the very best of your ability. And these people do it in front of a gazillion viewers. They have my and my six-year-old daughter’s unconditional admiration. (By the way, my money is on Gina to win it all.)

The judging system is what got me thinking. The panel of three judges provides additional drama with their camped-up bickering and disputes. They (and I’m sure an army of other judges we never see) decide who gets to “go to Hollywood” for the final rounds. Shortly thereafter, the judges give way to audience voting, and it’s the audience that decides who stays, goes, and wins (although we never do see an audited third-party report of all those calls, do we?).

The three judges, though, offer their commentary and expert opinion after each performance, presumably to give the voting audience some guidance. This could work very well in certain piping, drumming or pipe band competitions. Choose the same panel of accredited judges, allow them to tell the audience what they thought of each performance. But then let the audience vote for the winners at the end of the event. It works well for a bazillion people watching “American Idol,” and there’s no reason it couldn’t work well for what we do.

St. Groundskeeper Willie Day

What a strange occasion is St. Patrick’s Day. Everybody loves the Irish and wants to be Irish for one day a year. Being Irish obviously means having a stinkin’ good time, listening to music, and toasting absent friends. In the US and Canada the night is always a money-maker for pipe bands and pipers, who are employed across the continent to provide Celtic music in a loud way.

Scotland just doesn’t seem to have the same thing. St. Andrew’s Day both in and outside of Scotland is celebrated mainly by the snobby country dancing set and St. Andrew’s “Societies” that cater to the upper-crust. The Toronto St. Andrew’s Society requires people buying tickets to their annual hoity-toity dance at the swishy Royal York hotel to take country dancing lessons before they can attend. What fun.

Burns Night is good, and any country that produced a poet that speaks to the world at large can’t be bad. Burns celebrated the common man and wine, women and song, so one would think that the night would be every bit as raucous as St. Patrick’s, but, sadly, it’s not so. It’s never caught on in a big way. (Picture Scots celebrating “Mark Twain Day” or “Robert Frost Night” to get the gist of what I mean.)

There’s the recently conjured “Tartan Day,” but it’s contrived. It just doesn’t have the same zippity-zing as being Irish for a day. Most people like tartan cloth – nice colours and all that, and every year at least one fashion pundit announces that “tartan is in” this spring/fall/winter. But I just don’t know how many people want to pretend that they’re Scottish.

Then again, every non-Scot seems to like to have a try at putting on a Scottish accent. But usually it’s in an angry, sweary brogue. TV commercials have always been rife with uppity Scotsmen going nuts over a spilled pint or wasting money. Groundskeeper Willie is a caricature of the stereotypical Scot in the eyes of North Americans. And who wants to be that, even for a day?

Lightning bolt

The “10 Q’s With . . . Steven McWhirter” piece got me thinking. Steven seems mature beyond his 23 years, but winning a World Solo Drumming title at 23 must be something else. I wouldn’t really know.

Most people know that John D. Burgess won both Gold Medals at age 16, and he was even a legend before that happened. John Wilson (Glasgow) and Dr. John MacAskill were also in their teens when they copped one of the medals. More recently, the young Alastair Dunn picked off Aviemore gold last year.

But most people toil away at the big prizes never to actually win all of them. Some of the world’s most respected piobaireachd players – Jim McIntosh, Andrew Wright, and Jack Taylor, to name but three – never managed the Clasp, while others with a fraction of the knowledge gained the prize on the first try and became instant “authorities.”

The picture of McWhirter and Reid Maxwell forces me to think of the 20-odd years that Reid – clearly one of the greatest pipe band drummers of all-time – has not yet won the big solo prize, while his protégé got it after a few tries. But I’m certain there was no one happier for Steven than Reid himself.

My predictions: 1. McWhirter has many more World titles to come, and 2. his win opens the door to other fine young drummers being given the nod.

Springs eternal

Blue Jays vs. Phillies, Clearwater, March 7, 2007.

Watching spring training baseball is always a great pleasure for a baseball fan. It gets the fan-juices going to see who’s coming up and how teams might look for the season ahead. Baseball teams come to Arizona and Florida with about 50 players vying for spots on the 25-man-roster that will “head north” with the big club. The rest will be assigned to the organization’s minor-league teams.

There are 25 spots on each team. Nine players are on the field at a time, and the manager of the club uses the other 16 players strategically during the game. It’s no different from football, basketball or hockey – or just about any organized competition. Even musical contests.

Except for pipe bands. Bands can be any size and any number of players can be on the field at any time. It is a completely unbalanced competition. I suppose that it’s exciting to some when a giant band enters the field. It’s exciting certainly for those who either play with the band or those who have some predilection towards the band. Everyone else is not excited at all. In fact, they probably resent it.

Pipe band contests are as close to sporting events as they are to musical shows. A compromise needs to be reached when it comes to numbers before another band bites the dust in this survival-of-the-fittest situation. The minor league system works and should be put to use by bands instead of wrapping all players up in a single group, young hopefuls wishing for an impossible spot with the big club. Hope springs eternal.


pipes|drums will be a bit slower this week, since I’m on vacation where it’s hot and there are baseball games. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of news right now, except for the usual comings-and-goings of migratory pipe band people. Hope to file a few stories, though, but access and time are limited.

Faking it

The story of the late, “great” pianist Joyce Hatto being outed as a fraud did the rounds this week. Turns out that the marginally talented piano-player became a legend through her husband dubbing the performances of true greats onto records bearing her name.

Her husband claims that he did it out of love. Not quite Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, but it does tug at at least one heart-string, if not real piano strings (which are generally struck, not tugged).

As a ruse, I’ve mentioned to a few people over the years how easy it would be to create an apocryphal pipe band using recording techniques. One talented piper, a great side drummer, an excellent tenor/bass person and some good recording equipment is all you need to make the world’s best studio pipe band album.

You could try to fool everyone and create a legendary “one-time-only” shooting-star band. But who’s to say a pipe band recording couldn’t be legitimately done that way anyway? In fact, just about every studio pipe band recording made lists members of the band who never actually played a note on the album. It’s traditionally a bit of a ruse anyway.

It’s a challenge waiting to be taken up by three people: create the world’s greatest “pipe band” recording through layering and multi-tracking. If pipe band music is indeed marketable to a wider public, this could very well be the way to do it.


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