April 30, 2003

Massey Attack

Simon Fraser University Pipe Band
Massey Hall, Toronto
April 25, 2003

Reviewed by Andrew Berthoff

Is there a better all-round band on earth than Simon Fraser University? After its at times spellbinding concert at the 2800-seat Massey Hall in downtown Toronto, one would be hard-pressed to argue against it, considering the band’s proven competition power (four World titles, not in the World Championship prize list only once in 16 years), its ability to mount a two-and-a-half hour long show (21 selections, dancers, supporting folk musicians, a comic savant emcee), and its unparalleled organizational acumen (over 160 members across four bands, nine recordings, and tours to Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, and Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall).

It’s astounding that almost 15 years have gone by since the last pipe band concert in the city of Toronto. In 1988, the 78th Fraser Highlanders, still on the heals of their ’87 World’s win and “Live In Ireland” recording, broke new ground at the same Massey Hall. Since then, excellent and adventurous concerts have taken place, namely Peel Regional Police’s show in Brampton, Ontario, in 1998, but nothing in Toronto has come close to SFU’s triumphant concert on April 25, 2003.

Toronto’s 4.5 million people are a notoriously fickle lot when it comes to deciding where their entertainment dollars will be spent. Even still, considering the dearth of pipe band events actually in the city, one would have thought the hall would have been packed to the vintage 1890s plaster rafters. As it was, about 2000 enthusiasts supported the event anxiously and loudly.

At 17 pipers, five sides, three tenors and a bass, SFU was in great stride, filling the reverb-heavy Massey Hall with chanter and drone sound that at times could not possibly be better. Perfectly balanced pipes suggested a world-class symphony, with drones as rich and tuned as anything heard before. With plenty of musical variety from guitars, conga drums (still omnipresent at pipe band concerts), fiddle, keyboards, and drum kit, and a complement of 13 Highland dancers for visual, Riverdance-like stimulation, this was a show for everyone, even though it was clear that the vast majority were there to hear piping and drumming in particular.

The band played typically studied and tested SFU competition fare, including its two (yes, two) contest medleys, and one MSR – although the band “submitted” two sets, with the audience voting vocally on which would be played via a hilarious pipe band competition send-up by “ensemble judge” and emcee, Neil Dickie. This is a band in such fine contest form that it could win the 2003 World’s if it were held tomorrow.

SFU presented two suites, “The Music Man” and “Emancipation.” The scores’ musical intricacies, with their intertwining harmonies and counter melodies, were no doubt performed with great skill and precision, but unfortunately became a bit of a mush in the echoic hall, which, it must be said, is simply not conducive to a larger pipe band. Pipes alone, as in a lush rendition of Pachelbel’s “Kanon,” and drum section by itself, as in the corps’ impressive Drum Fanfare, sounded great. But, playing as a band, unison, inter-section integration, and overall ensemble were unfortunately compromised because of the hall’s acoustics. A carpet across the hardwood floored stage, reduced snare numbers and/or a waist-level curtain baffle in front of the side drummers might have helped to dampen and settle the reverberation. Prime fourteenth row centre seats in the first half were traded in the second for a spot in the third level “gallery” section. While the view was diminished, the sound improved dramatically, although even up top the hall still did not do full musical justice to this extraordinarily talented group. (Note to bands playing Toronto in the future: consider other venues, like the St. Lawrence Centre or the Royal Alex, which are used more often for stage plays and tighten rather than reverberate sound while still holding acoustic volume).

The four pipe solos (Jori Chisholm, Alan Bevan, Jack Lee, Stuart Liddell) were as excellent and fast as they come. Chisholm and Lee’s ultra-accurate, deft musical touches gave way to incandescent displays of digit wizardry from Bevan and Liddell, and the latter’s uproarious use of the sonic holes, the knees and the kilt while seated brought the house down, as did his mesmerizing rendition of the world’s hardest great pipe tune, “The Little Cascade.” Each soloist played no more than four minutes, and all followed the maxim of good performers: Leave ’em wanting more.

In terms of full band selections, nothing surpassed SFU’s curtain call set, which started with Liddell playing a blinder of a Walker-MacColl-Gillies-Johnstone-Liddell-and-no-doubt-loads-of-other-pipers’ setting of “The Mason’s Apron.” While SFU and other bands have performed “The Mason’s Apron” for years, it could not go unnoticed that this was originally made famous in the pipe band world by Toronto’s 78th Fraser Highlanders, who at least until the late 1990s played it as a signature piece.

But this rendition is like nothing heard – or, perhaps more remarkably, seen – before, and comparisons beyond the preceding would be reading way too much in to things. Rather than spoil SFU’s pipe section’s surprise rendition for future concertgoers, suffice it to say that this is simply clever visual stuff normally reserved for drum corps. At about 130 beats per minute SFU’s “Mason’s” is as fast as any band outside of the Ghurkas has played. The band backed it with the popular “Blue Cloud” from its live Down Under recording of 2002.

The concert was tied together by Dickie’s hosting, who was in tremendous comic form this night. No doubt resisting the urge to make light of easy targets – like Toronto’s ridiculously over-hyped SARS issue, or last year’s 78th Fraser Highlanders SFU-prompted boycott of the North American Championship at Maxville – Dickie was verbally engaging and spontaneously brilliant. As SFU may be the best all-round pipe band today, Neil Dickie could be the piping world’s funniest person. His timing, material and delivery are as good as those of a professional comedian.

Is Simon Fraser University the world’s greatest all-round band? This night they surely were. Here’s hoping that 15 years won’t have to pass again until the next great concert passes through Toronto.


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