August 31, 2012

Great past, great present, great future

Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia Pipe Band
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Glasgow, August 8, 2012

Reviewed by Andrew Berthoff

Perhaps pipe bands are a bit like people: at age 40 they start to reflect on their past, appreciate their present, and look forward to their future. So it is quite clearly with the venerable Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia Pipe Band of Bathgate, Scotland, those perennial contenders – and often winners – of major championships; as consistently good and reliable for longer at the top level than probably any band in history.

Before exactly 1,618 paying enthusiasts at the sumptuous Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Boghall wowed and celebrated with the audience for nearly three hours. While the “Pre-World’s” concert, reliably staged every year by the Glasgow Skye Association Pipe Band, is generally seen as an event where bands bring out a full slate of new head-turning material, this night Boghall decided mostly to reflect on its past four decades, while marking the successful here and now (fresh off their 2012 European Championship), and making no strong suggestion that their future is as bright as ever.

It’s amazing, upon reflection this night, just how many “signature” tunes the band has achieved. “The Streaker,” “The Big Road Brusher,” “The Mason’s Apron,” “Dr. Gaelic,” “Bathgate Highland Games” . . . The band brought out many of the past classics, set up superbly with slick video commentary by pipe band legends like Iain MacLellan, Bob Shepherd and Nat Russell. It’s a band with deep appreciation by the masses and it seems like everyone who’s been around has a fond Boghall memory to tell.

With a full complement of 23 pipers, 12 snare drummers, seven tenors and a bass, Boghall filled the bright RGCH stage. At times the pipe band used a tastefully restrained backing band comprising bouzouki, bodhran and keyboards, with occasional whistle colourings by Boghall piper Emma Buchan, described by compere John Wilson as “by far the best piper in the band.”

After a “Mason’s Apron” opening, and then some Donald MacLeod jigs, the band settled into Alan MacDonald’s “Lo delo del” with the folk musicians. The sound was drone-rich and balanced, and despite a solid line of drummers, the percussion never overwhelmed, as it’s prone to do in concert settings. The band’s bass-section, led by Stevie McQuillan, is just as admirable as the famous snare line, tenors beautifully orchestrated and – again – restrained. What’s more, these tenor players were always in time – sounds odd, but so often it seems that tenor drummers aren’t really that good at playing on the beat.

The first of the video interludes started then, with former P-M Craig Walker the first to recall memories, with fellow early members Hugh Goldie and Billy Hamilton recollecting the very first years when the Juvenile band had to wear suits and ties, as they could not afford a kilt uniform.

That led to the current Juvenile band taking the stage . . . in suits and ties, again celebrating the band’s rich history by playing original marches.

The full Grade 1 band returned with a current competition MSR that included “Abercairney Highlanders” or “the piper’s graveyard,” as Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald once referred to this tricky tune, rarely if ever played by pipe bands. After, host John Wilson couldn’t help lobbying for the preservation of the MSR, which he referred to as the “standard” for pipe bands that needs to upheld.

Drummers exited smoothly and the Pipe-Sergeant Ross Harvey led the pipe section (a nod perhaps to the future) with a wonderfully rendered “Mhairi bhan og,” then trading places with the drum section for a drum salute, which the compere piper jokingly Wilson compared with a sneeze: “You know it’s coming, but you just can’t stop it.”

Boghall & Bathgate is the only band besides Shotts & Dykehead known for so long for drumming. The fanfare was set up by RSPBA drumming judge Paul Turner as a tribute to Boghall’s original Leading-Drummer, Tom Brown. The fanfare, composed by current L-D Gordon Brown (Tom’s son), used a total of 40 separate drums (including three-drum roto-toms played by Gordon), with Grade 1 and Juvenile players combined on stage, joined by the great Tom Brown himself. Before the age of extensive bass-section work, Tom Brown deployed much the same concept by using tri-toms, doing the job of today’s three tenor players by a single roto-toms player. Hmmm. That was 30 years ago. Perhaps a simultaneous nod to the past and the future of drumming. The creative fanfare, which used brushes funk-laden electric guitar and the “Mission Impossible” theme was a heartfelt tribute to the great Boghall drumming master.

The second half opened with a set of jigs and then more video tributes and memories from famous folk recollecting favourite tunes, then breaking to the band each time to play just that tune. This was a great effect and, by now, if the crowd wasn’t getting the theme of the evening, they’d never twig.

A certain highlight of the latter half was singer-guitarist Rory Butler with a rendition of “To the Maiden Sing” and “Now Westlin’ Winds,” joined in the second by the band. Butler has a soulful, honest way about him, and is a likely future star. On John Wilson’s advice, I plan to buy his latest CD based on this performance alone.

The crowd got into the band’s 2012 World’s medley, featuring a clever arrangement of “Glasgow Police Pipers,” but seemed to get a bit lost with Mark Saul’s “Journey to the Centre of the Celts,” which might have been just a bit too esoteric for this audience, which by the looks of it comprised many non-pipe band folk. It’s great to attract a diverse audience – isn’t that what we always want? – but for a competition pipe band the challenge is to cater to their needs, too. While incredibly clever and complex, content like this sails way over the heads of the initiated.

The band concluded the official program with a set that featured a full-force sound, the group seeming to be more relaxed now that it was almost all done. Walker started it with “Angus Ramsay’s Lullaby,” the pipe section joining, and then finishing with “Dr. MacInnes’s Fancy” and “Tatumtitabra.” It was coming up n 11 pm when the audience demanded an encore, and the band came back out for a rendition of Don Bradford’s “Call to the Gathering,” written a few years ago in honour of the sudden death of the Strathclyde Police Pipe-Major, Harry McAleer. The final encore set featured a false start, with Walker stopping the entire band, Coldplay / Chris Martin style, waving his hands, declaring it “Rubbish,” not good enough for this audience, and, after a second try, reprised the “Glasgow Police Pipers” segment of the band’s World’s medley – probably the latest “signature” tune for Boghall.

In all, Boghall & Bathgate delivered on the night. It wasn’t a razzmatazz, knock-your-kilt-socks-off series of new music; it was mainly the band being what the band is: Quality, consistency, polish, and with a nod to traditions, past, present and those sure to come.




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