April 30, 2003

Product plug

Unplugged – Live at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band
Monarch Recordings, CDMON 847

Reviewer's rating: 4 gracenotes out of a possible 5

Reviewed by Iain MacInnes

What a pleasure to hear such a good pipe band in its prime. Unplugged – Live at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall captures the Field Marshal Montgomery band from County Down playing to a large and lively crowd in Glasgow three days before last year’s World Pipe Band Championships (which it went on to win).

Given the circumstances, it’s little wonder that the band is at its most assured when tackling the big competition music. Confidence oozes as the players get to grips with a full-length medley, climaxing in Fred Morrison’s rollicking reel “Frances Morton,” and there’s a compelling swagger in a MSR which features “The Clan MacRae Society,” “Susan MacLeod” and Duncan Johnstone’s wonderfully gritty setting of “Charlie’s Welcome.” This is the stuff of champions, with the band playing astutely to its strengths—the trademark tone, the strong fingering, the controlled breaks—all driven by a confident and imaginative drum corps.

In this context, Pipe-Major Richard Parkes and leading drummer Andrew Scullion opt for the no-frills approach. The sleeves are rolled-up, and the band goes about its business without fuss or bombast. Frank Cassidy provides some tasteful bouzouki, and Mark Armstrong bolsters the percussion with congas and full kit, but otherwise it’s down to the pipes and drums, and Parkes’s ear for a good tune and an effective arrangement.

Devotees of the band won’t find much here to surprise them. A proportion of the material is drawn from past medleys that have done good service on Glasgow Green, with hornpipes well to the fore, as ever, and a brace of strong jigs drawing whoops of appreciation from the band-savvy audience in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. There’s plenty of cheering, too, for piper Alistair Dunn’s nimble-fingered solo, part of which is played at a blistering pace, and a carefully-crafted duet featuring Brian Martin and Scott Drummond.

Tune-wise, Don Bradford contributes an impressive jig in “The Calm Before The Storm,” which is later reworked into a full-blown suite, while the Canadian composer Bob Worrall is well represented in a beautifully-made hornpipe “The Sorcerer,” and a sprightly concert-opener called “Drew James MacIntosh.” Philip Greer makes his mark with a pleasantly quirky waltz called “No Bottle.” Elsewhere some of the new writing is less distinguished (functional rather than inspiring), a fact brought into sharp focus by the sheer beauty of a small set of John MacLellan retreat marches (including the strangely-named “Dream Valley of Glendaruel”), tunes that are already a century old, and which look set to remain pipe band classics.

Andrew Scullion and his drum corps make a nod in the direction of tradition, albeit the relatively recent one of pipe band snare drumming, with a lovely interpretation of Alex Duthart’s famous drum fanfare, a creative tour de force which was making heads turn over 40 years ago, and which still sounds as fresh and vigorous as ever. This is good music, and is so deeply ingrained in the pipe band psyche that your average piper could probably flam, drag and paradiddle his way through the opening salvo with a modest degree of accuracy, at least verbally.

Elsewhere the band plays it straight, and performs with impressive consistency and control. If I have any qualms it would be in the re-working of the fiddle tune “Lord Ramsay” (which extends well beyond the range of the pipe), into a pale imitation of the original, and a slight tendency to stretch reel-time dance rhythms into tunes that sound suspiciously like old-style hornpipes.

One of the dramatic high-points of the recording comes in Don Bradford’s “Calm Before the Storm Suite,” when the pipes drop out, leaving the drums punching out an uncluttered rhythm. This is dynamic stuff, and I wonder if it’s time for us to consider incorporating this sort of arrangement into pipe band competition medleys.

In fact, I have a proposal. Ditch the competition medley selection as it stands, at least at the World Pipe Band Championships. The format has become formulaic and predictable, and has lost the edge that was evident in the 1980s and ’90s. Instead, give each band 15 minutes to do as it wishes. Pipes and drums needn’t play together all the time. Drums should be encouraged to do their own thing. Pipes should be given breathing space, particularly in slow airs. Bands should be allowed to play facing the audience in concert-style formation, and to start and stop as they choose.

All this would probably have been impractical 10 years ago, when instruments were less reliable, and players unaccustomed to long concert performances, but times have changed, and the competition system should change with them. Loosening the stays would undoubtedly encourage fresh and innovative thinking, and, equally importantly, would give bands attending the World Championships a better platform for their talents. One of the most disheartening aspects of the World’s is watching excellent bands, many of which have travelled huge distances to attend, effectively down and out by lunchtime, having played for as little as five minutes in the early hours of the morning, only to be eliminated in the preliminary round. Surely we can do better for them than that.

I would suspect that bands of the calibre of Field Marshal Montgomery would relish the challenge of a revised competition format. In the meantime we can enjoy the Field Marshal, and others, putting their creative energies to full use in their concert performances. For proof, you need look no further than this well-made, classy recording of a world-class band in vintage form.

Iain MacInnes has been writing for the Piper & Drummer for almost 15 years. A world authority on Scottish pipe music of all types, he was the founding presenter and producer of BBC Radio Scotland’s “Pipeline” until taking a sabbatical in 2002. He is currently a member of the Celtic folk group Ossian, and working on a book on Highland piping of the last 150 years. He lives in Edinburgh.


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