July 31, 2004

Getting into the kilt

Lorne Cousin and Madonna
The Re-Invention Tour
Air Canada Centre, Toronto
July 21, 2004

Reviewed by Andrew Berthoff

About two-thirds of the way into Madonna’s frenetic “Re-Invention Tour” show the mood suddenly gets serious, as she performs a rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The segment is strangely out of context with the blistering array of choreography, costume-changes, and hit after hit.

As she ends “Imagine,” the massive stage clears as Madonna, musicians and dancers exit, and on the right edge two feather bonnets slowly rise from below. Wearing Madonna’s interpretation of “number one” dress, piper Lorne Cousin of Edinburgh strikes in, his bagpipe equipped with three wireless microphones.

For someone inside the relatively staid piping world, the juxtaposition of our traditional music with the hottest pop act in the world is almost surreal. This can’t be happening. I thought that one of two things could result: 20,000 fans would think it’s either unbelievably dorky or incredibly cool.

And incredibly cool it was. As Cousin sounded the pipe the place went truly mental. Madonna has Cousin play – and it’s almost unreal to report this – the first line of the crunluath doubling of “The MacDougalls’ Gathering,” as he leads a bass drummer, swinging tenors (more proof of the mainstream entertainment value of flourishing tenors), and dancers, all dressed in long kilts, diced glengarries, and, in the case of the dancers and tenors, tank-top t-shirts.

They march across the front of the stage to the left side, where Cousin then plays a brilliantly arranged bridge to Donald MacLeod’s great strathspey, “Susan MacLeod.” Just as is done several times when Madonna plays guitar, Cousin’s hands are displayed in close-up on the massive video screens behind the stage, clearly with the intention of showing to all that this is real piping, that Cousin really is playing.

An electronic, multi-tracked bridge takes over, and then gives way to the opening keyboard hook of “Into The Groove.” The crowd gets even more delirious, and, just when we thought that Cousin’s stint on stage was done, he – amazingly – returns for a brilliantly executed dance routine with Madonna, just the two of them. She hugs him, pipes and all, and then they perform an ersatz Highland dance sequence across the front of the stage, where a moving sidewalk contraption makes their pas-de-bas and squats look like something from one of those videos by Jamiroquai.

Lorne Cousin playing and dancing so well, wearing number one dress, on a moving sidewalk-stage, before 20,000 screaming fans, with Madonna could well be one of the best things ever to happen to Highland piping. Cousin and Madonna, by keeping the music noble and the instrument pure, give the much-maligned Highland pipe a profound dose of mainstream viability. Madonna has chosen to make real pipe music part of her show and, when the tour and the upcoming television broadcast and DVD are complete, a hundred-million people are sure to think that bagpipes are cool.

And what could be better than that?


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