April 10, 2006

Travelling all-stars

The last post about Allan MacDonald’s recording brought back some memories, mainly because of his really clever use of the Jew’s harp on a few tracks. It was either the spring or fall of 1977 or ’78, I believe, when I was a 14- or 15-year-old in St. Louis. British Caledonian Airways for some strange reason decided to start a St. Louis-Prestwick non-stop flight, and to launch it they sent over the Grade 1 B-Cal Pipe Band.

Back then, and perhaps even today, a top-flight Scottish band suddenly landing in St. Louis for a kid-piper would be akin to a Little Leaguer on a farm being visited by the New York Yankees. B-Cal then, as ScottishPower is now even after many name changes, was a band of all-stars players. Not the entire competition band made the trip, but I remember Hugh MacInnes, Tom Johnstone, Rab Kelly, Frank Richardson and Rab Turner being in St. Louis.

They played up and down the streets of Clayton (?!), a suburb of St. Louis in the first afternoon, and my dad took me out of school to go see them, since he recognized, as always, how important it was to me. Feather bonnets and tunics and plaids, and they were larger than life.

I think the band then had to play downtown that evening, and I and some members of the Invera’an band, which I played with, managed to tag along with them. I remember ending up in O’Connell’s, a great St. Louis pub, with many of them. Hugh MacInnes must have been in top playing-form then, and I remember that he was playing P-M Angus MacDonald’s pipes, a set of 1890 or so MacRaes. (Angus unfortunately didn’t make the trip.) He had them out at the pub, and everyone (including me, who must have been shockingly bad) had a tune among the many pints.

But the most memorable part of the experience was Allan MacDonald when he pulled out a Jew’s harp and started playing “Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay,” alternating with his practice chanter. I’d never heard anything like it, and it made me practice all weekend, all week, all year and all life . . . at least until a year or so ago. (I even tried to learn how to play a Jew’s harp for awhile, and discovered that you could make a perfect Star Wars’ light saber sound with it.)

It’s funny how things like that can just happen, even to a wide-eyed adolescent piper in St. Louis. Not that I’m necessarily notable, but I think that probably most  notable pipers or drummers can recall similar happenstance being something of a turning-point in their career.





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