Rush to judgment


A few weeks ago I wrote about the Rush-inspired medley that the Grade 3 Durham Regional Police are playing this year. The band (pipe) starts with “Tom Sawyer,” the (rock) band’s one hit – or the closest thing they’ve ever come to a hit despite a gazillion album sales.

I managed to get a recording of it at Cambridge, so here it is. You can compare it with the original prog-rock song from the Canadian power-trio, as they’re referred to by anyone who cares. The video is from – gulp – 1981.

I also wrote a while back about bands doing new things with familiar melodies, mentioning that Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” might make a good adaptation. That summer I believe Shotts included Coldplay‘s “Kingdom Come” in its medley.

I think that what Durham does works, especially for a non-piping Canadian audience. The band includes lots of content for piping aficionados, and so it can still be new and different and clever while also being “true to the idiom,” as some people like to say.

You might say that the recent pipe band trend of taking a very familiar tune and repurposing it in a new time signature and tempo (see Al-Cal’s take on “Crossing The Minch,” for example) is much the same idea.

I spent much of my lost high school years doing two things: listening to Rush and playing the pipes. I never thought that the two could be merged.

Rules of engagement

Donald Mackay’s resignation as Strathclyde Police pipe-major is, in a word, unusual. Obviously, family comes first, and a pipe band at the end of the day is just a pipe band. But I can’t think of an instance in which a leader of a top (or any, for that matter) Grade 1 band left mid-season, let alone three days before a major championship.

I would bet that, ever the gentleman and good guy, Donald was actually thinking of the band first. Perhaps he thought that stepping down now would allow whoever succeeds him to have that much more experience taking the band on the field before the all-important World’s.

There is the as yet unwritten (otherwise it would be written) book of unwritten-rules when it comes to pipe band etiquette. Most people in the northern hemisphere feel that April 1 is the last date that you can leave a band on certain good terms. Past that, and you risk leaving friends in a lurch.

Unless of course you have a damned good reason for departing, which, knowing what I know about Donald Mackay, he must have had.

In this age of mercurial commitment in all walks of life, I’m actually surprised that the traditional notion of how and when to leave a band isn’t contradicted more often. The extraordinary level of dedication that a top band requires, especially from the pipe-major and leading-drummer, makes playing with and sustaining a top-flight band unbelievably difficult.

Sometimes, real life is more important than the often unreal world of piping and drumming.

45 singles

What would White Jock do?I’m not sure if other associations do it, but the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario has traditionally offered occasional solo piping competitions for those 45 and older. (It used to be 50 and older, but that was changed for a reason I can’t remember three or four years ago. Strangely, there aren’t equivalent events for drummers, who always seem to demand equal billing to the pipers.)

I’m not sure what I think of this. On the one hand, I wonder why these players don’t just compete in the grade that matches their skill. If they play to a Grade 2 amateur caliber, then why not play in Grade 2?

On the other hand, I’m also undecided about older competitors competing against little kids, which is what often happens mainly in the lower amateur grades in North America. Part of me thinks that there should be an age limit to events, which I guess suggests that the “45 and Over” (sic) MSR event makes sense.

A major distinction, of course, is that 45+ competitions offer cash for prizes, whereas the amateurs get medals. But the money really isn’t much, and the handful of talented players who enter these events don’t seem to need the money that badly. I guess it pays for a few litres of gas, but the money isn’t by any means increasing commensurately with the price of pe’rol.

I’m still not eligible to play in the category, but I’m certain that I’ll never consider it next year. I’m not sure why I think that way. Why haven’t eligible top-players like Bill Livingstone, Bob Worrall, Jim McGillivray and so on ever entered these events?

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy listening to these players. They almost always have a very good instrument, and a certain maturity to their playing that you don’t hear much in the amateur grades.

I’d love to hear your arguments for and against solo competitions for older pipers, so fire away!

The world seems old and new

Look at me!The new system we’re using for the pipes|drums Poll allows for much more accurate results, since it’s a one-address, one-vote mechanism, meaning that folks can’t – for whatever pathetic reason – stuff the ballot box.

Over the hundreds of previous polls, I’d never thought to try to find out what age people were when they took up the pipes or drum. Two things surprised me about the results: 1) that more than a third of learners started when they were younger than 10, and 2) that a full 12 per cent started when they were older than 21. I didn’t think either response would be so large. 

I started when I was 11, and so am with the 31 per cent who began when they were 10, 11 or 12 years old. But 12 out of every 100 pipers and drummers taking up the instrument as adult learners? That’s amazing.

But, then again, if you take a look at the North American lower-grade solo competitions you will see that kind of a ratio, with people in their 40 and 50s and even 60s competing against very young kids. At first it looks kind of wrong, but perhaps that diversity also makes things interesting. I doubt that there are many arts that pit senior citizens against grade-schoolers.

I noticed at a piping and drumming school recently that most students were either kids or retired. There weren’t many in between. It perhaps further supports the notion that the demography of taking up the pipes or drum is very much for the very young or the very old. I wonder why.


Hmmm, a new piping rag has arrived in the snail-mail. Let’s read the report of this competition that happened three months ago and that everyone has already discussed ad infinitum on the net, watched videos of, and has already said every conceivable thing there is to say . . .

Plonker & District – good uptake to march. Good going here. Top hands a bit iffy in reel? Don’t like the tom-tom tenor drumming. Not my cup of tea. Crap.

Lumberyard & Son – what are they thinking with that opener? Not enough cane in those drones. Squeals hurting this band. Should get new chanters and reeds. Couldn’t smell any seasoning wafting from the circle. Crap.

Bloomers of Cardenden – not as good as I’ve heard them before. Tempi not like I used to play them in 1979. Didn’t like the tartan. Did I see the pipe-major hitch up his bag? Crap.

. . . and so on. That’s a slightly exaggerated parody, but this sort of absolute dreck has been the bane of piping “journalism” forever. It goes on today, even in these supposedly more enlightened times. I said this before, but it’s worth remarking on it again. For some strange reason people think that it’s okay to crack on our very best competitors after the competition is done, as if people can’t listen to the whole thing on the net and judge for themselves. As if anyone even gives a toss what the writer thinks about the competition as a non-player / non-judge.

What’s worse is that these bitter reports are usually by people who haven’t played in a decent band for decades, or been asked to judge a decent band competition, or, I would guess, even been asked to join a decent band.

Not on pipes|drums. Ever.

Rocking your gypsy soul

The Man

I don’t go to many non-pipe-music performances any more, but when Van Morrison is in town, as he was last night, he’s a must-see, no matter what the price. He played at Massey Hall on the same stage that SFU and the 78th Frasers have occupied. We, along with about half of the other 2600 fans, didn’t see or take seriously the ticket stating the start-time as 7:00 pm sharp. He and his nine-piece band started exactly at 7 as most were still filing in or waiting in line outside on Shuter Street.

It’s impressive to see such musicianship. No pre-recorded stuff to flesh out the sound; just 10 players doing everything there and then, often with great spontaneity. Even though Van the Man is legendary for wanting things just so, it seemed like the band wasn’t exactly sure what he would do next. Their eyes were glued to him all night and the band communicated with subtle body language that only they understood.

Van Morrison is Northern Ireland’s greatest contribution to world culture. Greater than Seamus Haney. Greater even than FMM. At 63 he’s as irascible as ever, but he continues to produce inspired music and a sound that a few have tried to imitate, but always comes across to me as what it is: an imitation. Despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to care what people think of him, he’s a true original.

It’s his devil-may-bother attitude that serves him so well. Pipe bands all too often play what they think people (mostly judges) want to hear, and it all too often sounds that way. Any piping people who see Van Morrison live will see terrific buttoned-down musicianship, but with honesty and spontaneity mixed in. It’s a good recipe to follow.


Good times . . .

A long time has passed since I recorded a pipe band competition. When I was a kid I would haul around this bulky cassette apparatus to places like Alma, Michigan, to capture the Grade 1 bands. I still have those somewhere. I then progressed to a Sony Professional system, which for a while was state-of-the-art for handheld remote analog recordings.

But I recently picked up a little device that makes very high-end digital audio captures – not really for my own interest, but for yours. I used it for the first time at Kincardine yesterday. Being on the roster of a band, I recused myself from judging the Grade 1 event, which allowed me to record the contest. The files – 128-bit MP3 format – are very good, and I hope pipes|drums readers/listeners enjoy them.

Interesting, too, that in sync with my plans Michael Grey wrote about the change in the speed of piping and pipe band information due to technology. Like him, I remember well the days when news of results from Scotland would come not hours or even days after the event, but sometimes months in the form of the Pipe Band or Piping Times magazines when I used to read them.

To be honest, I felt a bit of a tube being one of the recording geeks, but I think the trade-off is small price to pay. I plan to bring more of these to the magazine as I can coordinate them.

Sparkle in the games

The Kincardine Scottish Festival is tomorrow, and, as I’ve said before, it’s one of the best piping and drumming events anywhere. It excels not necessarily because of the competitors it attracts (it’s pretty much the same level of bands and soloists as Georgetown), it’s because of the sense of community that the event generates.

This is a big deal for the small town, which is as proud of its Scottish heritage as any in Ontario, including the massive Glengarry Highland Games at Maxville.

But rather than try to grow Kincardine into a behemoth event, Kincardine is quite content being small and manageable. Band entries are capped at a total of only 25, and entries are on a first-come policy. That said, they do ensure that all grades are covered. Don’t ask me how; I don’t know.

I think pipers and drummers like Kincardine because of that integration with the community. The townspeople treat their guests with honour and respect. You feel just a little bit special when you’re part of the piping and drumming spectacle at Kincardine. They let you play on their lawns. They even let you use their toilets.

And I think pipers and drummers return the favour. Everyone seems just a little bit more positive, a little bit more polite, a little bit more respectful. That’s not to say competitors are anything but those things anywhere else. It’s just that the mid-summer atmosphere there is slightly more fun.

And the bands get to play in a natural amphitheatre with the crowd stacked around them, assured of an interested and positive response no matter what their grade-level. They’re also assured of shade, and extremely close proximity to the beer tent. These things can’t hurt.

While Maxville is North America’s competition crown-jewel, I have to say that Kincardine is the continent’s remote diamond. Like the sun that reflects off of Lake Huron, it also sparkles.


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