Concert Review: Field Marshal Montgomery and Bucksburn & District, “Just Listen”
“Dedicated to developing youth for music” is a worthy philosophy for any pipe band, one
Field Marshal Montgomery tune up for the Grade 1 Medley at the 2012 Worlds
Bucksburn & District have long embodied as one of Scotland’s premier teaching bands. It’s surely not a coincidence that the three Grade 1 bands they’ve invited to share the stage of the Aberdeen Music Hall in previous concerts also have established development bands in their organisations.
“Youth” isn’t a word you might immediately associate with Field Marshal Montgomery (“champions”, “immaculate” and, at the moment, “unbeatable” are perhaps alternatives), but there were plenty of youngsters in their ranks at the Just Listen concert on Saturday night. The legendary pipe corps is stacked full of outstanding players with years of experience, but the amount of playing time given over to the younger members, including a fair few teenagers, is a strong indicator Field Marshal will be challenging for, and winning, the big prizes for a very long time to come.
This was my first time at the annual Bucksburn concert, and I’m pretty sure it was also my first time back in the Music Hall since my first year school prize-giving a very long time ago. The chance to watch the reigning World Champions in action made me especially glad to finally make it along, and the audience was able to enjoy a night of world-class music after the concert team overcame a setback at the beginning.
Those of you who have been to this concert in previous years may know better, but something to do with the acoustics, microphone set-up or perhaps a combination of both created an effect that was initially just too overpowering. For the first three sets the pristine pipe sound, never-better drumming and superb ensemble that made Field Marshal untouchable in 2013 did not come over well, and the excellent backing musicians struggled to make themselves heard over the pipe band in the third set. However, the tag-team trio provided a welcome break to try and fix things, and the sound balance improved considerably over the first half. By the time Bucksburn struck up after the interval, it was clear that a solution to whatever the problem was had been found, and the audience obeyed the instructions to “just listen” far more happily.
Field Marshal were the first band to liven up the pre-Worlds concert by displaying photographs and video on a screen above the band, and appropriately enough there were similar visual treats to keep the listeners’ eyes occupied. The evening began with a superbly-crafted “trailer” montage featuring highlights of both bands to get the crowd pumped for what was to come.
It also provided a necessary distraction while Field Marshal took to the stage, before they stormed out of the gate with the first couple of tunes from one of their alternate medleys a few years ago, a hornpipe arrangement of Cabar Feidh and a jig version of The Mason’s Apron. They rounded off the first set with the famous medley closer from their 2006/7 World Championship victories, The Fiddlers’ Rally.
Field Marshal Montgomery on the long march to the line at the 2012 Worlds
Richard Parkes is justly famous for his ability to craft world-class medleys, and most of Field Marshal’s other sets included the odd tune instantly recognisable from one of his classics. We’ll talk more about the medleys later.
The vibrant, expressive and often blisteringly fast music of Fred Morrison and Gordon Duncan are especially popular with younger pipers, and when the time came for Field Marshal teenagers Bradley Parker, Connor Sinclair and Ross Hume to take the stage for their tag-team solos, those composers featured heavily in their tune selection. Needless to say, the crowd was highly entertained and gave each of them deservedly enthusiastic applause.
Gordon’s music opened up Field Marshal’s contribution to the second half of the night, with a quartet paying homage to the Pressed for Time track from The Circular Breath – Gordon’s second and in many ways most adventurous album. The original featured Gordon playing his own composition on practice chanter, while using part of the piobaireachd The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute as a harmony line on whistle. This time the harmony was played on fiddle, with the four pipers also reinterpreting the tune as as jig. It was a brilliant idea and Field Marshal’s most creative offering of the night, and in a venue with better acoustics to perfect the balance between pipers and backing musicians the result could have been even better. I hope it’s not the last time I hear the band perform that piece.
Field Marshal treated the audience to both the medleys they will be competing with this season, starting with the Pipe Major George Allan selection that helped them win the Worlds last year. When MC Jim Campbell announced the band would be debuting its new medley, you could sense the anticipation in the crowd.
It’s a barnstormer.
Bucksburn & District march away after competing in Grade 2 at the 2011 Worlds
Signalling an intention to perhaps take a few musical risks this season, the selection begins with called A Wee Bit of of the Ordinary. The tune itself doesn’t especially live up to its name, being an attractive pointed hornpipe the band has come to favour to open its medleys. Strathspeys and reels follow, ending the first half with the most gusto-filled rendition of The New Paradigm I’ve heard since Masterblasters.
Field Marshal’s 2004 medley is probably still my all-time favourite, and I’m thrilled they’ve brought back the deceptively simple but very evocative slow air from that selection, Salute to Cap Caval. Now we get to the good part.
Jim Campbell made the point that the best tunes transfer easily to other idioms they were not originally composed for. Susan MacLeod is often touted as the finest competition strathspey ever written, and Field Marshal demonstrate it also makes for a fine waltz. And a fine jig. They finish off in the grand style we’ve come to expect of this band with an absolutely tremendous jig version of another classic MSR tune, Mrs MacPherson of Inveran.
If any other Grade 1 band has a medley this season to match Field Marshal’s new selection for sheer complexity, musicality and the finger dexterity to pull it off with such incredible panache, I can’t wait to hear it.
They brought their portion of the proceedings to a close with a march and jig set that seemed to go on forever (and that’s a good thing), culminating in another classic tune from a recent medley, John Patterson’s Mare. This time the balance with the backing musicians was much better, and made for a fine finish.
Bucksburn do far more than just host this concert, the band also takes the stage every year. I’ve heard very positive remarks about how they strive to be musically adventurous in their own right, and I was very impressed. Bucksburn had a backing band of their own to add extra spice to their last two sets, including one of my favourite hornpipes, The Winnipeg Forger, with G.S. McLennan’s The Jig of Slurs rounding off a great slow air and jig set.
The hosts showed off the young talent within the Grade 2 band, newly consolidated with last year’s Juvenile section, with an excellent tag-team trio of their own. Most of the band’s younger players will have come from the ranks of Bucksburn’s long-established teaching system, and when the time came for the current Novice band to take their turn on the big stage they gave a superb account of themselves – very impressive considering a fair few pipers probably don’t yet match the height of their base drones!
Bucksburn & Distric march into the Grade 2 circle at the Europeans, July 2012
The night came to a rousing finale when Bucksburn and Field Marshal joined forces to perform an absolutely stunning rendition of the song The Parting Glass, of appropriately disputed Scottish/Irish origins. The concert programme sadly doesn’t record the name of the singer, but she sang the melody beautifully, and the pipe tune makes for a lovely march too. The previously troublesome acoustics came together at exactly the right time, with the backing musicians and singer clearly audible even when the full pipe corps of both bands were playing. The piece was arranged in the slightly depressing key I fall for every time, perfectly reflecting both the splendour of the evening and sadness that it was finally coming to an end. I was told afterwards that the two pipe bands had only practised together for the first time on the morning of the concert, and I would never have guessed. It’s one of the finest concert finales I’ve ever heard and I absolutely loved it.
It was great to see the youngsters of the Novice band, who had performed so well on their own, get a chance to join in for a final rendition of Scotland the Brave and play together, in front of a sell-out crowd, with the finest pipe band in the world today. Field Marshal Montgomery deserve to be applauded for granting the next generation of players the chance to create a precious memory I hope they will treasure all their lives.
And as we’ve seen from the number of teenagers in the ranks of the Grand Slam champions, it might not be that long before they’re playing in the headline act themselves.