Red Hot Chilli Pipers: Best. Concert. Ever.


I’ve seen some of my idols in concert. I’ve seen legends in concert. Billy Joel, Billy Joel with Elton John, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel. (KISS.) I loved the shows (except when the beer was dumped on me at BJ); I remember the incredulous smile that stuck to my face all throughout S&G. This, though? This was the most fun I’ve had at a concert, and the hardest I have ever loved the performers. This was the best concert I’ve ever been to.

One factor in that, I have to say, was the setting. Not just the Bushnell – which is a lovely, lovely theatre (we were in the Belding Auditorium) – but also the fact that the audience was entirely, or almost, made up of people who were sitting home one night in either June or August minding their own business when CPTV, in the midst of a dreaded pledge drive, put on a concert by a group of insane Scotsmen. (Sorry – that is an oxymoron, I know.) And they – we – picked up the phone and pledged and required as our thank you gift two tickets to this concert. Well, tomorrow’s actually; they had so many ticket requests they had to add a second show. So this was a hall filled with people who paid more than the advertised ticket price to be there, and who were there purely out of love of the band. Well, usually people go to a concert because they love the band – but this was a PBS group who were willing to sit through pledge breaks to see the concert on CPTV. That’s love. Not a bad way to stack an audience.

We left home early; it’s supposed to take a bit over half an hour to get there, but neither Shar nor I knows Hartford, so: extra time. Fortunately. Yes, we got a bit lost. Yes, there are some kinda scary areas up there. Yes, we visited a couple of them. We made it out again, and arrived only an hour or so early – yay. This meant good parking.

The show was opened by a gentleman from CPTV, which was actually rather nice; it felt like a communal effort. And he announced that, as an opening act, there was a surprise: the Manchester Regional Police & Fire Pipe Band (oh! Formerly the 53rd Stewart Highlanders!) came out, 12 pipers strong with four drums (including the massive bass, and one snare whose player was a drumstick acrobat). It was pure, straightforward, classic bagpiping (and drumming), and they were wonderful, and were given a rousing welcome and sendoff, well deserved.

Oddly, then, the house lights came on … Not just up, but fully “bye now” on. When they finally went back out a quarter of an hour or so later, it was all the way out, to set the stage for:

THIS

Accompanied by dramatic lighting, as appropriate. Halfway through the band trooped out and took their places, those without kits to stand behind taking up stances with their backs to the audience. I wish I could tell you the first song they gave us, but they rocked the place for two solid hours – it’s all a marvellous, giddy blur now … These are not only young guys with wonderfully twisted senses of humour and mad skillz at arrangement – these are fiercely talented musicians, every one. 

(If only I could figure out the lineup; I didn’t retain enough names!  I know Stuart Cassells, host and bagpiper extraordinaire; the other two pipers were Kyle Warren the tall dark and handsome and Kevin McDonald of the prodigious moves.  Drumkit was Steven ‘Stav’ Black, and fantastic; snare drum was (from the site) “twice world champion snare drummer Steven Graham”: “fastest hands in Scotland” indeed – it was like watching (or trying to watch) a hummingbird hover over the snare.  Stuart called him a Ferrari on the drums – which is utterly perfect.  Percussion and guitar and red spectacles was Malcolm McEwan – he and Steven Graham engaged in the drum duel, with backup from Stav: I’ve said it before, I think, I love drums, and this, with these guys, was to die for.  Heh.  Bongos and bagpipes were peculiarly, wonderfully made for each other.  Gary O’Hagan was the wonder behind the keyboards … which leaves the axe-man.  And a few folks in the Facebook photo albums I can’t reconcile with the rocker dude in the sneakers … Who was – there is no other word – awesome.  Hm. (ETA: Firestarter.  Aptly named.)

Regardless.)  Coldplay’s “Clocks” was meant to be played on the pipes – I think I prefer the RHCP’s version, and I love the original.  Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” was gorgeous – it shouldn’t have been as good as the original, but it was.  And “Smoke on the Water” … they’ve been playing it on the radio quite a bit lately, and I miss the bagpipes, is all.  Tonight Stuart dedicated a song to Bill Millin, who accompanied British troops in the landing at Normandy carrying no weapon but a bagpipe.  British high command had banned pipers from accompanying troops to try to prevent casualties, but Lord Lovat told him “Ah, but that’s the English war office.  You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”  He passed away on August 17 – and I think he’d appreciate the honour done to him tonight.  “Amazing Grace” began on the keyboard in almost a gospel mode, picked up by Stuart on the pipes.  About when I thought I was going to have to sit sobbing, the song broke out into a tremendous full company riot.  It was (channeling Mia Michaels) ridiculous. 

There was so, so much more – like the encore halfway through the show (please don’t ask me on which song, because my brain has officially begun to shut down) of the Manchester Regional Police & Fire Pipe Band – I have never seen or heard of a standing ovation in the middle of a concert before.  It was a joy. And, of course, “We Will Rock You”.  Come on.

I know there are a lot of people who don’t like – or who hate – the bagpipe.  I feel terribly, terribly sorry for them.  The only musical instrument to (afaik) ever have been used as a weapon – the pipes are wild, uncontrolled, plaintive or joyous, heartbreaking or inspiring.  (I love the image of a phalanx of Scotsmen – wild-eyed, hairy, kilted – making for enemy lines skirling on the pipes … I’d run away rather than oppose that.)  So often the traditional pipes bring nostalgia, make me wish for the past (a past that never was, really); they stir up the collective Scots half of me and make me wish I’d been born a long time ago.  Bagpipes in the hands of these men make me glad I’m here and now and able enjoy the honor of being in a RHCP audience. 

I don’t think I was the only one loving them with a deep and awed adoration tonight.  I hope they felt that.  Can’t wait till I have the chance again.  (There’s a new CD out October 17!)

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8 Responses to Red Hot Chilli Pipers: Best. Concert. Ever.

  1. accountantgrrl says:

    I’m glad you had a good time. :-)

  2. Maya Robertson says:

    another amazing “Bagrock” band to check out… Albannach.. (more tribal drumming than Rock) but still awesome! also you might want to check out “Brother” as well

  3. stewartry says:

    Thanks! I’ll check them out!

  4. Stewartry, that was the most incisive and comprehensive review I’ve ever read! Kudos and thank you for it! My husband and I met the band about 3 years ago when I brought a camera crew to NYC to a club called “Stout’s” where they were playing; then we met them at The Glenlivet in Scotland where they were playing a gig and hired them for my festival in ’08. Unfortunately, we got rained out that year. I was simply compelled to see them succeed in America, so we brought their DVD to CPTV, cobbled together their first U.S. tour and they have just stormed every venue they’ve played! Our hope is that PBS will take them nationally, truly musical history in the making! If you are planning to attend “Pipes in the Valley” on September 25th, please email me directly about it. Cheers, ~Gail McClellan

  5. cliff says:

    Just saw them again for the second time in 5 days

    (Hartford and Plymouth NH)

    The Plymouth New Hampshire crowd was more active and danced in the space down in front of the stage. I could watch these guys every night of the week (I would be broke but happy)

    They just love what they are doing and they win the crowd over very quickly

    Cliff Potter
    Northford Ct

  6. stewartry says:

    Howdy, neighbor! *waves from next town over* Lucky neighbor – – ! Did you see them in Hartford Friday or Saturday?

    New Hampshire had it right – for the first half hour or so it just felt so odd to be sitting sedately listening to that music … And I remember laughing to myself that well, it was the Bushnell – it felt so reserved, and while applause was loud there wasn’t much yelling going on (from the audience). That didn’t last – I thought my palms would be bloody and my throat hoarse when it was all over.

    Oh, I do need to go to Pipes in the Valley.

  7. I love this review – i am the mysterious axe man you couldnt identify by the way!

  8. stewartry says:

    Well, pleased to “meet” you! “Firestarter” couldn’t be more appropriate – you & the lads were on fire. Thanks!!

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