Gig review: Piping Live! Tenth Birthday bash, Glasgow

Picture: Chris James
Picture: Chris James
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THERE is something about a serious pipe band tuning up – that inimitable, amorphous sonic mêlée of drones and chanters, snares tapping impatiently as it all gradually coalesces into musical form and a tune takes shape.

National Piping Centre

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Thus it was that Glasgow’s tenth Piping Live! festival emerged out of what was in essence a public practice session by the ScottishPower Pipe Band as they gathered at the Street Café outside the National Piping Centre, which is a hub of the festival.

As strathspeys crackled in the air, it became clear that in the ten years that it has provided a week-long countdown to the final weekend’s World Pipe Band Championships on Glasgow Green, Piping Live! has become a major fixture on the international piping calendar, not to mention that small matter of an estimated 
£20 million injected by the festival into the Scottish economy over the past decade.

A mere 30 years ago such a scenario might have been dismissed as laughably improbable. This week, some 150 piping-related events are bringing not just innumerable Scottish-style bands and soloists from across the globe, but often rarely heard indigenous pipes from such disparate cultures as Italy, Hungary and Majorca. There are workshops, sessions, album and book launches. This year’s festival even takes in a lecture on competition psychology as well as two beers specially brewed for the festival.

And in what surely must have been a first of its kind, in the Piping Centre, a five-times-World-Championship-winning pipe major who also paints, Robert Mathieson, and a seasoned historical painter, Duncan Brown, who also pipes, unveiled a series of oil-pastel portraits of piping notables, Mathieson playing tunes associated with them while Brown executed a real-time painting before our eyes.

Later, outside in the Street Café marquees, the ever- developing piping scene was represented by two emerging young, pipe-centred folk bands: a powerful trio of up-and-coming Highland piper Scott Brown, fiddler Mhairi MacKinnon and guitarist Ron Jappay, and the slightly heavier-sounding Barluath, which featured pipes, keyboard, bouzouki and Scots and Gaelic singing from Ainsley Hamill.

For pipe and fiddle brilliance, however, it was hard to beat Finlay MacDonald and Shetland fiddler Chris Stout, who launched their new album, The Cauld Wind, with a scintillating duet, unencumbered by any accompaniment, leaving the pair to explore the dynamic and harmonic possibilities of bellows-blown Border pipes and fiddle or viola.

Stout’s dark viola tone was particularly effective, not least alongside MacDonald’s velvety low whistle in their opening retreat march, Loch MacLeod, highlighting the tune’s grace and dignity. Among pipers celebrated in that portrait exhibition upstairs was the late and inimitable Gordon Duncan, and it was great to hear one of his many enduring tunes, The Thin Man, given full, life-affirming flight by the pair.