Concert Review: Bucksburn & District Pipe Band and Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band, “Reinvented” by Stuart How do you follow up a concert by the reigning Grade 1 World Champions Field Marshal Montgomery? By booking the most competitively successful pipe band of all time, undergoing a closely-watched resurgence led by a man who spent half his life with the aforementioned Field Marshal and is now out to beat them. Bucksburn & District have done wonders for piping in Aberdeen through the annual tradition of this concert, and securing the services of Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia to perform their first concert under Pipe Major Ryan Canning to kick off the 2015 season on May 2nd was a true masterstroke. It has become a staple of these concerts to begin with an epic video montage on the screen above the stage, and this year's offering has to be the best yet. The mashup of archive and recent photos of both bands coupled with old sound clips, epic music and thunderclap effects was truly awesome, and made sure everyone in the Aberdeen Music Hall was wide awake by the time Bucksburn took the stage to begin the night's music. Bucksburn invariably put in as much creativity and effort into their performances as they do with the video montage, and work hard to offer up fresh music each year. While Shotts have long been famous for playing tunes written by their Pipe Majors, Neil Selbie is also a tunesmith and it was refreshing to see a Grade 2 band also displaying plenty of originality. The hosts kicked off with a set of reels and a pair of 9/8 marches, the former accompanied by a large backing band, who also played on two more sets in the second half. As I discovered at last year's Just Listen concert with Field Marshal Montgomery, the acoustics of the Aberdeen Music Hall are just not the same standard as pipe band audiences have become accustomed to at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, and sadly the effect of the backing band just didn't come over very well despite the hard work clearly put into the arrangements, although Pipe Major Selbie's selection of tunes was pleasing throughout. Bucksburn have long been one of Scotland's premier teaching bands, and they never fail to give their youngsters some spotlight time. I counted around 17 pipers in their Novice Juvenile band, a number of whom are the youngest I've ever seen in a pipe band. They all acquitted themselves superbly, and clearly enjoyed themselves as they performed their rock band version of Hell Pipes, made famous by the Asturian band Tejedor. Coupled with their performance with the Red Hot Chilli Pipers on the same stage a few months earlier, the Novice Juvenile band's turn at Reinvented was a wonderful showcase for what young pipers and drummers are capable of doing these days, and I hope a few mums and dads in the audience were inspired to point their kids in the direction of our marvellous hobby as a result. The Grade 2 band is also very youthful this year, with Master of Ceremonies Jim Campbell pointing out that six members are aged 15 or under. Many players did not look much older, and the band must be applauded for getting this young group ready for such a high profile concert as well as the small matter of the competition season. The MSR they played, comprising The Conundrum, The Ewe wi' the Crooked Horn and The Cockerel in the Creel, is far from a walkover and an enormous step up from the playing requirements of Novice Juvenile. After performing one of my all-time favourite tunes, G.S. McLennan's classic retreat march Kilworth Hills, Bucksburn closed out with a jig set in the company of their backing band. One might expect Grade 2 to be very tight this year given the quality of the prizewinning bands kept in the grade and those promoted into it after last season, and I wish this young band all the best. The main focus of the night though was of course on the guest band. Over the last two seasons we've seen how Ryan Canning has revitalised Shotts & Dykehead on the competition park, and I for one had been impatient to find out just what he would do with a top six band on the concert stage. Since Canning is one of the most popular composers of pipe music working today, it was delightful to hear a programme rich with his own tunes as well as many highly sophisticated arrangements. Appropriately, Shotts began their portion of the concert with a set of rounded hornpipes, the idiom for which Canning is perhaps best loved. Right from the start the brightness and crispness of the pipe tone was matched by the briskness of the tempos and sharpness of the playing. While the two tunes, Aldergrove to Abbotsinch and Salute to the MacLawsontyres, were lesser-known, it was nevertheless a trademark set of Ryan Canning hornpipes just like we have heard so often from Field Marshal Montgomery and many other bands. Having seized the audience's attention with such an arresting start, Shotts swiftly moved into a classic MSR: The Highland Wedding, Susan MacLeod and John Morrison of Assynt House. Time and again over the last two seasons Shotts have put on a masterclass in how these tunes should be pointed, particularly the march and strathspey, and this performance was no exception. Next up was a slow air, waltz and hornpipe set, with The Lark in the Morning one of several well-known tunes to be given a waltz-time makeover. Ryan Canning has rebuilt Shotts around a core of young pipers, many of whom are making names for themselves on the solo circuit. A tag team gave the spotlight to four of these players - Sarah Muir, Andrew Clark, Andrew Bova and Iain Crawford. The audience cheered long and loud for each of them, and I must acknowledge here that Bucksburn's soloist Chris Donaldson was also received very well. The display screen above the stage came into its own, as the audience was able to read the biographies of these highly talented young players while enjoying their performances. It is a mark of how far piping has come in academic circles over the last few decades that Andrew Bova has two degrees in piping and is working on a PhD. Following a set of 3/4 marches, Shotts concluded the first half in style with their Blockbuster medley, which they have played for the last two seasons and will keep as their number two selection in 2015. The first half had been very high quality but comparatively conservative from Shotts, who eschewed backing musicians and kept the performances pipe band-only apart from the tag team solo. I had been really hoping to hear Canning unleash his creativity in this concert, and I'm very glad the audience got to experience more of that after the interval, beginning with their superbly crafted new medley. I particularly enjoyed the opening march, another Ryan Canning original called The Octagon, and the waltz passage in the second half involving a reworking of one of my favourite small reels, The Ale is Dear. It should be a real crowd pleaser and I can't wait to hear it again. After the tour de force of the medley Shotts slowed things down again with a classic from one of Aberdeenshire's greatest musicians. James Scott Skinner's Hector the Hero is one of my all-time favourite pieces of music, and the sumptuous harmonies of the full pipe corps were a joy to listen to. Ironically the simple acoustic guitar backing, after the sound technicians eventually cut off some horrible feedback, was the most successful example of a backing track integrating with a pipe band up to that point in the concert. Hector the Hero gave way to a very cool minor key reel called The 42nd Parallel, before the set finished in glorious fashion with Canning's loveliest tune, which surely not by coincidence is named for the woman who is now his wife, Miss Megan Harrington. For all the changes that Shotts have gone through as a band in the last ten years, the one constant has been the prowess of Jim Kilpatrick MBE and his formidable drum corps, and the World Champions did not disappoint with the inevitable drum fanfare. The drummers mesmerised the audience with a combination of multicoloured luminous drum sticks and some seriously sassy tenor drumming, complete with selfie. When the crowd eventually stopped applauding, Shotts moved into the final phase of the concert with some hornpipes and reels. This penultimate set began with Carradale Bay, a great old-fashioned pointed hornpipe played first in its traditional setting and then with panache in a more rounded style, moving through a few more tunes before ending with another re-worked classic, Bessie McIntyre. Fittingly, Canning saved his most sophisticated surprise of the evening for last. The first new medley Shotts unveiled in 2013 began with a march called The Siege of Dubrovnik, and now we know the origin of the unusual name. The video screen proved its worth again, displaying a short film chronicling the siege of the medieval Croatian city by Yugoslav forces during the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s. While we are used to hearing this tune as an aggressive, driving medley opener, Shotts changed its character altogether by playing it first as a very atmospheric and haunting slow air on whistle and pipes before the full band joined in for the more familiar march, seguing into five jigs ending with another Aberdeenshire tune, Monymusk. It's important not to forget that the Great Highland Bagpipe is an instrument of war, and it was comforting to see that its distinctively Scottish voice can also speak to the suffering and hardship of other peoples. To close out the evening, Bucksburn joined Shotts on stage for a lovely combined rendition of Mist Covered Mountains of Home in the company of vocalist Deborah Haig. What little space was left on the stage was soon filled with Bucksburn's Novice Juvenile band, who joined in for the mandatory finale of Cock o' the North and Scotland the Brave. The problematic acoustics and less-than-perfect sound balance between instruments was the only real downside to this excellent concert. Since the Music Hall will be unavailable for the next two instalments in the series due to a refurbishment, it will be interesting to see if the forthcoming change of venue enhances the experience for the audiences and performers alike. Pipe Major Canning succeeded in both entertaining a crowd with high expectations and in laying down a challenge to the rest of the top six in Grade 1. The rebuilt pipe corps showed the tonal quality, sharpness and musicality to challenge for the highest placings, which makes for a formidable combination with the famous drum corps' return to winning ways. Shotts were never going to offer up a radical Toronto Police-style repertoire for this concert, but the material on offer showed the class, sophistication and ear for melody the piping world has come to expect from Ryan Canning. His reinvention of this historic band continues to show all the qualities that made his appointment three years ago such a stroke of genius. There are still many excellent bands they will have to beat to get there and it may yet take years, but Shotts have made a bold statement. The hunt for their 16th World Championship is on.