Review: St. Laurence O’Toole’s finesse highlighted
Turas Ceoil – Resume
St. Laurence O’Toole
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
August 15, 2018
Reviewed by Alex Gandy
I entered the Glasgow concert hall doing my best not to expect or anticipate. The buzz was most certainly there and there was a great mix of pipe band luminaries and people who maybe didn’t have the most experience. I sat between Donald MacKay, pipe-sergeant of ScottishPower, and a couple who were debating whether 10 bands or eight bands were going to make the final, so there was contrast from the time I sat down.
The start of the show was excellent. A video on the stage narrated largely by Pipe-Major Alen Tully and Lead-Drummer Stephen Creighton discussing the band, the music to come, and lots of great pictures/video footage of St. Laurence O’Toole from years ago or of Ireland. Once the video finished, the drum corps was on the stage and the pipes entered from the back of the hall. Some ensemble issues were present, but once the pipers were on the stage everything tightened right up and the snares were right on with the pipes.
I was quite impressed with the gutsy move done by the pipers on the stage, on the fly. They had markers on their chanter and taped down their C and F to enable them to play naturals rather than our usual sharps. This enabled them to play in different scales than typically accessible by pipe bands, which I think is a great example of their musical knowledge and ability. During this very minor-sounding set, the bass drummer was on a second bass that they had set up, which was more akin to an 808 machine rather than his competition bass. It was very cool. I was in the second row from the front so when he hit that drum I could feel it. It was pitched lower and really complemented the spooky minor-key slow material they played.
Now rather than giving a rundown of each and every set, I wanted to discuss the highlights of the concert. A play-by-play review, nitpicking X-Y-Z, isn’t what I enjoy reading, so I won’t make you do it either.
The jig playing. Having been lucky enough to hear Alen and Terry Tully play on their own, if you haven’t, I can assure you that they’re both outstanding jig players. The rhythm is there, small accents in each group, and it is super consistent. I was most impressed that rather than taking the road a lot of bands do, playing their GDE’s in the most round/even manner, the whole band was doing this. I could’ve listened to them play jigs for a long time and been happy.
“The 79th’s Farewell to Gibraltar.” They played it, and it was lovely. So often the top bands try to play bulky tunes, showing their muscle, whereas this highlighted SLOT’s finesse. It is great that there’s such a strong example of this tune as it is usually butchered when played in massed bands, everybody just wanting to finish to get to the beer tent. When I was just learning as a kid, this was the first four parted 2/4 I went through. I’m sure there are many others that did the same.
Between quarters of the show, we were treated to a juxtaposition of acts. Robyn MacKay and friends, a folk group, and Coda (apologies if this is not the accurate spelling), a group of seven men singing acapella. You could tell Robyn and her friends were having a great time on the stage. When she started on the whistles, another prime example of great jig playing was there, though when all five people were playing I had a hard time hearing Robyn. Given that the band was named for her, I think the mix could have been dialed in a little better, but it was still entertaining and lively. Coda isn’t something I would’ve naturally pursued on my own, but their vocal chops were impressive and the rendition of “The Mingulay Boat Song” was cool to hear.
The highlight of the night for me was Alen and Terry playing on their own, sorry SLOT! Alen struck up and started into an air/song, and Terry joined him on the repeat. It’s very hard to put into words what the feeling was there. You can tell that they’re family. The way they could hold the notes, leaning just past what you think would be right, not totally different from your line ends in piobaireachd, it was really the star for me hearing them play together.
I know from having played at that concert hall in 2007, managing the trips from the tuning rooms to the stage can be tough. I thought the drones were a little loose on the night, but the chanter projection was excellent. Their low A’s were really, really in together. The pitch was a bit high for me and I think this may have compromised their high G’s and high A’s, with the G’s on the thin side and A’s on the raspy. That being said, the temperature will be different on the green than on that stage I’m sure, and I’m sure the sound team at SLOT is aware of that too.
The drummers did a great job of trying to have a strong blend, using some barriers to keep the snare sound from overpowering. Given how close I was, I had a hard time hearing the tenor drums as they were behind the barrier too, but apparently for those at level or above the stage, the tenors were coming through well. The bass drummer was on stage with the pipers and was great all night. A very subtle touch, but was right on all evening, keeping the snares and pipes together, but also the backing band that had a tendenc
y to wander/detract from the bands overall ensemble.
My biggest grievance was regarding the amount of round hornpipes/reels. It seemed like the sets of those just kept coming and coming. I would’ve loved to hear more sets of dot-cut tunes and a little less of the straight-down-the-line.
All of the material that they’d be playing on the weekend, MSR’s and medleys, was played at the top level. The unison within and between the two corps was strong all throughout these sets. I’m lucky enough to have videos up on YouTube the day after each major. This helps me to stay in touch with the scene here, but hearing them live is a different thing all together. They’ll be right up there on Saturday in the list.
With this all being said, it was a very entertaining night and I wish them well. Having picked up two major championships already in 2018, they know they’re in shape for it. I’m looking forward to seeing how it breaks down and what the judges have to say. Thanks to St. Laurence O’Toole for a great evening.
Alex Gandy is pipe-major of the Grade 1 78th Highlanders (Halifax Citadel) of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and played with Field Marshal Montgomery for several years. He has won many top solo piping awards, including the Jigs at the Argyllshire Gathering and the Piobaireachd Society (Canada) Gold Meal. He lives in Halifax and works in the financial industry.
Be sure to check out pipes|drums’ Piping Live! 2018 Wednesday highlights video, which includes clips from the St. Laurence O’Toole concert!