August 31, 2003

League of Champions

The 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
August 13, 2003

Reviewed by Willie McCallum

For some on this night, the prospect of going to hear a pipe band concert on a big football night in Glasgow would be a hard choice. Only a few pipe bands can have the appeal to win that argument.

“The 78ths,” as the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band of Toronto, Canada, are known here in Scotland, are one such outfit, and on this night certainly proved their place in the “Champions League” of pipe bands.

On entering the Royal Concert Hall, it was gratifying to see so many of the big names in solo piping and pipe bands – including many of the band’s opponents this Saturday at the World Championships – turn up to see and hear the latest offering from this progressive band.

For many, hearing one of the top bands a few days before the World’s gives an insight as to how their fortunes may go on the big day. On this night, there was little to provide any clue as to how the band will fare on Saturday. This was certainly not the “unplugged” version of the band.

“Seanchaidh” is more than just a pipe band concert. There is a central theme of storytelling that traces many events through Scottish history and folklore and attempts to tie them in to pipe and pipe band music. When I read through the programme, I could not conceive how the narration could bring all the numbers together, but it was very well conceived and the Highland tones of Ishabel MacDonald and the more Canadian Ranald Livingstone weaved the story well between the old and new worlds.

This project has taken huge planning and ingenuity. The logistics of putting on such a show when pulling members from all over North America, are massive. New material has been written specifically for the show and, in my opinion, the band pulled it off. They looked to be enjoying themselves in the process, which I think came over in the delivery of the programme.

Twenty-one sets in all kept the huge crowd interested and at no point did this listener think the thread of the concert was lost. There was huge variety of material, alternating between traditional pipe band MSRs and medley and the new concept material, much of which has come from the pen of John Cairns. Ably assisted by a pipe corps that is strong and rich-toned, showing many personnel changes from last year, and the magnificent and varied contributions from the percussion section, led by John Fisher, Craig Colquhoun and Tyler Fry, there was never a dull moment.

Then there is Bill Livingstone, who seemed to spend as much time supporting the band on keyboards as leading on pipes. The energy of the show seemed to grow from the start. The contribution of the Celtic Accent dance group enhanced the show greatly, and the choreography certainly boosted the music.

To go into individual numbers would take all day, and I can only comment on some of my favourites. “Zimba Warrior” is meant to represent pipers serving in South Africa 100 years ago, and there was a brilliant performance from the dancers of Celtic Accent. The final set in each half was excellent, marred only by the drum kit, which I thought came in rather loudly and overpowered the music of the pipes. “The Little Cascade” set, with Livingstone and Jake Watson on keyboards and some brilliant percussion effects, also takes some beating.

Humour also took a turn with the “Fish Fry,” where John Fisher and Tyler Fry played out a kind of one-upmanship set with pipes and keyboards supporting. These two guys have some energy, and at one stage Fisher plays two drums as well as the tenor drum of Fry. Tyler Fry looks as if he could take off like a helicopter while still keeping the beat. Brilliant.

The “Pre-World’s Concert” is now in its tenth year and goes from strength to strength. Lavish praise must go to Jim Cooper and the Glasgow Skye Association Pipe band for their sterling support in promoting this magnificent event again.

Hats off to the band for a great night’s entertainment. Future performances of “Seanchaidh” should not be missed.

Having won virtually every major solo piping prize there is, Willie McCallum is one of the world’s greatest pipers. He also played with bands for many years at the Grade 1 level. An accountant by profession, he lives in Bearsden, Scotland.


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