What a thrill it must have been for the youngsters brought on to the stage for the finale of Johnstone Pipe Band’s Celtic Connections concert yesterday, writes the Editor. It made for an emotional end to what was a thoroughly pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
The concert began with warm up sets from Finlay MacDonald, Angus MacColl jnr. – at times you could have sworn it was dad up there – and the spectacular uillean piper Jarlath Henderson. This was the first time I had heard Jarlath and he is clearly a master of his complex, exciting pipe. His closing, rousing set of reels brought the first half to a vibrant, exalted climax.
But to the main course. Seeing Johnstone’s three bands, Grade 1, Grade 3A and Renfrew Schools (NJ) all lined up on the biggest concert stage in the pipe band world was visual testament to the incredible work being wrought by one of our youngest pipe majors, Keith Bowes. Keith is ably assisted by the old man, Keith snr., and former Inveraray P/Sgt Douglas Campbell. Indeed the rise of this band is bested only by that of the current World Champions. Johnstone made Grade 1 last year via winning the Worlds in G3A in 2014 and G2 in 2015 and 2016. On the evidence of this concert they will be in the top echelon for the forseeable future.
Their discipline, their tone, their music warmed the 1,000+ audience on what was the coldest weekend of the winter in Glasgow. I would venture to say that they do not yet have the precision in some of their execution that the top six bands in G1 possess, the last part of Allan Dodd’s Farewell to Scotland a case in point. Here the descending melodic sequence and its attendant doublings proved particularly challenging.
And maybe the drums were a little loud. The blowing improved when the pipers could hear their instruments better as in the Gaelic air (lovely singing here from Dingwall lass Kirsty MacKenzie). Last grumble – ditch the Pipers Warning piobaireachd/march thing. Pipe major! It just doesn’t work! Other than that, here was an excellent choice of material carried off with some aplomb. The band demonstrated a thorough understanding of the rhythmical requirements of each idiom.
For most of the pipers and drummers it would have been their first time on the big stage. Nerves must have been close to the edge. Yet they rose to the demands of such a high pressure performance admirably. On and off the stage like professionals, each set was right on cue and this enabled the concert to build in momentum until that heartwarming ending with each section stepping forward to take a collective bow. Plaudits too to the dancers, a not over-chatty MC and a discreet backing group. For those who couldn’t manage along, I understand the BBC’s ‘Pipeline’ show has recorded the event for broadcast.
Johnstone Pipe Band are Grade 1 – make no error. Still a bit raw, they are a work in progress, but with their organisation, their feeder system, their knowledge and quality sound, they will be around for many years to come. Their commitment to teach is worthy of the highest praise (140 SQA certificates since 2014). The band are currently celebrating their 75th anniversary. What a way to kick off a year of celebration. Congratulations to everyone involved.