Some say his top hand is bigger than his bottom (and say so in less delicate terms), others that his predictions are too close for comfort……..All we know is his coverage of Grade 2 is what you are after and in this final review of the summer MacStig brings his own inimitable commentary to what was an exciting end to the 2018 outdoor season………
Glasgow Green was damp and grey and remained so for all of Saturday. There were some threatening showers although they didn’t come to very much – for that we are grateful – and also for a very exciting Grade 2 contest, even if the clear winners were indeed very clear from the earliest bars of their medley.
After two tough qualifiers, half the field was eliminated and I was quite surprised to see Kilchoman Isle of Islay fail to qualify, given recent outcomes, yet more so Grampian Police Scotland, a real contender coming into the event but off their best for sure. However at this level of competition we should never be surprised. Just look at City of Dunedin, qualifying 6th in their heat, dead last in drumming, and going on to win the Championship and the drumming trophy. There is a story in itself, but more of that later.
Before delving into the Grade final, a few observations and points for general consumption. It is worth remembering that the qualifier has no impact on the final run, in this case the Medley. Two different sets of judges for the qualifiers, so no uniformity, making the scores incomparable in any event. The role of the qualifiers is simply to get the 12 for the final, then start with a fresh slate. There will always be bands who score better in either March Strathspey & Reel or Medley. But knowing what the final will be in a particular year, and getting best at that discipline, is all part of the preparation.
In an earlier column for Piping Press I had forecasted a five or six band North American representation in the final. That was on the money and the other way to look at it from a domestic perspective was only two of the 12 were Scottish bands (Mac Cals and Bucksburn). In itself that might be a shocker to those skimming the surface, but in the wider context of the last few years, Johnstone, Buchan P, Skye, and Lomond & Clyde have all been elevated in recent times because they were top of the grade. Those coming in recently from Grade 1, for various reasons, like Ravara, Peel Regional Police and LA Scots changed the mix too.
Whilst it was a great thing to have the final widely broadcast globally on the day, especially with such an overseas contingent, it was disheartening to see the stands so poorly populated for a Medley competition and Final. Here is the problem, with the stands being ‘sold out’ for what is a Grade 1 event (it even said it on the ticket), the G2 finalist fans may well have struggled to get a ticket. The stands almost emptied after FM played their Medley, probably a bit disheartening and unsettling for Dowco Triumph Street coming down to the line as the next and last to play. I know the situation and geography of the stands layout will be discussed elsewhere too, but why not open the seating after the G1 final and get at least some of the four and five deep crowd standing watching the final from over the fences in the pathway, inside? The big screen should be behind the bands too and allow those in the stands to watch it without having to turn around. It’s what most concerts do in the 21st Century. And don’t start me on ‘the circle’.
I’ll pass on commentary about weather, and avoid lobbing in statistics about rainfall days and measures in Glasgow in August, versus many other cities in Scotland. The west coast ‘summer’ is statistically proven to be from mid May to the end of June. The early hurricane season over in the Atlantic is throwing all sorts of fronts, wave upon wave to reach us and bringing weather from the west, with the peak in September/October. Mid August will be dreich and damp eight in 10 years. At points over the two days it was cold and miserable and hardly conducive to the very best sound and playing. It might be ‘authentic’, but that is a marketing conspiracy. In reality it is miserable, especially at 8pm at night as dusk arrives and some bands had finished playing 10 hours earlier.
Then we had to watch the broadcaster faffing about with various takes to create some sort of TV ‘reality’ that does not bear any relation to the Grade 1 contest. Let’s be clear, none of the bands have any clue about the standing at the so-called half way point, nor should or do the other judges, I hope. It’s a fiction and we should all remember that when the highlights programme is on television in due course. Then there is the thing about not broadcasting Juvenile Grades, although I’m not sure what the ‘thing’ actually is. Anyone watching Grades 1 and 2 live and online will have recognised a number of very talented Juvenile age musicians across the bands. Oops. And don’t dare put up an umbrella in the stands. But all of that is another story to be taken up elsewhere in Piping Press.
So to the Grade 2 Final itself. It was again grey, overcast and cooling quickly with fine rain for moments here and there. As stated, six North American finalists loaded the final, three of whom competed against each other just two weeks ago at Maxville. The arena was ready and off we went, although the hand-held camera operator obviously wanted to join a few bands, getting dangerously close and at one stage crossed the circle right in front of a band marching in. It was a close call actually, and his only being a few feet away might have unsettled the front rank. I noted a steward waving him back at one point and there was adjudicator congestion from time to time as they all moved around a lot with the camera dodging here and there. Maybe fixed positions are needed. Although the little wagtails pecking away in the arena seemed to be wholly untroubled by what was going on around them.
First up, with the prevailing wind at their backs and emerging first in all departments, the City of Dunedin. It’s a big sound, the precision was there and it was together. This is a crafted and polished Medley they have worked and worked knowing it was the decider this year. They got a tiny bit of a light drizzle but it did not cool the red-hot playing from pipes to championship winning corps. The tempo was on the edge and could have caused issues, and here and there I did fear it might have.
Also, I had suggested watching the bass – and it was the glue in the middle. All round Dunedin were the one to beat. P/M Iain Donaldson has put a solid band together in his relatively short years in Dunedin. The folks back in the city at home were watching on the live stream and no doubt the celebrations will continue for days. First in all and in the jeopardy that is pipe bands, Dunedin qualified from Heat 1 in 6th place and last in drumming. The North American Champions bounced back in the final, took the World Championship, best drum corps and surely a shoe in to be on the Upgrade Committee agenda in the autumn. Better than a raft of Grade 1B bands in my book. (1 1 1 1)
New Ross hasn’t had the piping firepower to match the powerhouse drumming unit behind it all season. Drumming is certainly one of the best in the grade but this was not enough on Saturday. I thought the slow air was thin at the top and pinched slightly. Not robust enough in parts but the rumbling snares beat into the strathspey was perfect pulsing. This was a performance well liked by the crowd but the band did look to have run out of steam in the Final. However, having displaced a number of more experienced G2s in qualifying, this band’s first year in the grade has to be warmly applauded. They finished 11th (10 11 4 11) with drumming the bright star in the outcome.
Worcester Kiltie from New England qualified well in second right behind the Mac Cals in Heat 1. Yes the Mac Cals qualified first in that one, so hold that thought. The March Strathspey & Reel was clean and I felt the wait between 10am and pushing on for 3.45pm was a significant contributor to the sound difference in the final. It was less relaxed and seemed to be more tense overall, although the Medley was well crafted and nicely stitched together it did seem a bit hand knitted at times between pipes and drums. Finishing in 5th place (in the World) and picking up more silverware, whilst not far away from 4th, the Kilties should be delighted with their season, in Scotland, in Northern Ireland and in North America. There is a the beginning of a strong movement here for sure and I reckon this is one on the rise and one to watch. They also brought a decent group of camp followers to Glasgow who seemed to be having fun. (6 4 5 8).
The Centenary celebrating Mackenzie Caledonian have had a mixed season. It would have been a script writers dream to be sitting with a couple of Championship wins under their belts, but the latter part of the season saw some less spirited finishes and questions about their credentials as contenders right at the cusp of the biggest Major. However, I was back with the programme again as they blistered through the first heat and wasn’t surprised to see the scores later. Drumming has been the slightly weaker component, although with full-on piping it has never bothered some G1 champions. The qualifier gave me a sense of what might be, and they looked fresh as they came up to the line and got away with Reverend A W R Mackenzie’s Revenge, but it ebbed away from there, came back strong after the slow air but just wasn’t on it enough.
I had them ahead of New Ross in piping but the others were ahead at this stage so a placing in the six was looking less likely with three or four big names to follow. They finished 8th (7 5 12 5) and may well feel disappointed after a blistering run in the qualifier. An MSR final would have suited better. Setting all of that aside though and looking across the season, this is a band in forward motion, moving on and they will be back next year stronger. The drum section will have matured, with some of the younger players now more experienced. The P/M has a quality pipe corps to build on. Not a bad Centenary Year at all and congratulations to Mackenzie Caledonian and all connected with it.
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The stars on the sidewalk, LA Scots, qualified fifth in Heat 1, ahead of Dunedin. They have found their niche in Grade 2, playing more comfortably and looking mightily relaxed. The Donald Black starter was not enough to grab me tightly, but it started to warm up although there was a lot of boom in the bass from where I was sitting. Maybe too much call and response in the slow air but that is just personal preference. As a wider comment, many of these slow air tunes are written for a solo dulcet line whilst bands over complicate the seconds to show off the top range, yet find they can’t hold the steady tone because of a lack blowing control. Then the drum scores try to get too clever. Anyway, LA Scots came out the other side and tried to get up to tempo. I did sense some wandering in the race to the finish and that possibly led to the (8 8 10 7) and 9th. It was good to see this band back on the Green on a Saturday and I know there were trials and tribulation in reaching Glasgow due to lost luggage, missed connections and a car drive from London for a few. Bravo LA Scots, not quite an Academy Award performance, but well on the way. Haste ye back.
Bucksburn & District must have been buzzing after learning they qualified from Heat 1.The final was their final though and it was a big ask for a band that was fighting above its weight in this Medley contest. Again I think the long wait from late morning to 4pm took its toll and the there was a degree of running on vapour as the performance progressed. (12 12 11 12). As P/M Selbie led the gang down sphincter alley the tone was slightly shrill from the distance and I feared for them. But the seasoned P/M had it under control and they pipers settled at the line. On a more general note, and not necessarily about B&D, why don’t bands sort out what their approach music will be and get the stop absolutely right just like the G1s? Time and again the G2s rolled down with all sorts of signals and arm waving going on and messy stops occurring. It is noticed.
Anyway it was a relief to hear Donald MacLeod and a known tune rather than some of the less well-travelled pieces. For instance, earlier in Arena 1, the Juvenile top three all marched in to well kent pieces and delivered them with aplomb, calming themselves and possibly the adjudicators. The Bucksburn snares were five strong but busy, maybe too busy at times. I admit a tear in the eye for the slow air and a neat swing out to a couple of toe tappers with nice seconds. (12 12 11 12) and propping up the table, but finalists all the same. Congratulations to Bucksburn and we can now look forward to next Spring’s concert in Aberdeen.
The dark horses for the final, Ravara, have been up and down the winners’ lists like fiddler’s elbows – mostly up though and a welcome addition to the grade for sure. They qualified for the final and a seventh place may well have disappointed them, but it looks like a fair outcome when stacked up against the more local and international competition. They made it known they were there from the off but again I think the day had taken its toll. There were some well know tunes in there and maybe there was an anxiety in getting to the not so slow air. Boy, did it rattle through. I’d concur with the brighter third in Ensemble. (9 9 8 3). A strong winter of practice and Ravara will be a strong prospect for 2019. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to them over the last few months.
Another contender in the form of Manorcunningham had stepped in strongly from Qualifier 2. A good sound and, as with the rest of the season, dependable, with the odd little thing here and there. It wasn’t going to be enough to dent the efforts of the very top but strong enough to take a creditable fourth place (5 3 6 6 ). In isolation the piping score would have been third. I’ve been open about my liking for this band over the last couple of seasons and I fully expect them to be back again next year full of vim and vigour.
I had heard North Stratton at North Berwick and reckoned a further week in this climate would assist. There was always the challenge of being flat, particularly given the weather in recent days.They found a solution and sneaked into the final on the sixth place qualifying place. That form was about right for the Medley final and with (11 10 3 10) the positive drumming score elevated the outcome to 10th. It was a tidy medley and got off to a smart start with a neat salute to the Ensemble judge, a lost art I have often mentioned and would encourage back. It’s better than the awkward bows, head nodding and facial pulling you can see all over. In spite of one tenor adjusting strings in the opener the tempo did just lag a bit behind where it should have been. In that case the seconds might have sounded lighter and felt more nimble fingered. I liked the idea of the direction of travel though and a hearty well done to them for the performance.
The St Thomas Alumni band came rolling down the alley and again the tune got choked a bit up there. This was a band on a mission and with only Closkelt to follow, the gates were open for them to face up to what Dunedin had played an hour earlier and take the glory. The P/M didn’t want to fail for fear of trying and this was not a playing safe option. They really had a go. I should mention the neat use of bass drum dampening in high evidence (students of the drum go watch the links on the RSPBA site). There was a blitzy tempo throughout and the drum corps was on cracking form here – the accompaniment to the slow air particularly worthy. However, there were, I think, tiny minor piping issues just before that air. The strathspey after it might have shown the same thing, but it was so small that on ordinary days it would not matter. But the World Championship final is no ordinary day. They scored twos all round, except the fourth in Ensemble. The outcome (2 2 2 4) and second in the world, one better than last year, but hurdled by their nearest geographical neighbours Dunedin.
Closkelt is a great band, with a great work ethic. Well supported in their area and doing good things. In my view this was the best sound of the day, not that it matters, as I was higher off the ground and not as close as the pencils. They scored a three and a seven for the widest spread in the grade. A score of (3 7 7 2) gave third overall by one point from rivals Manorcunningham. Those two with the odd dash of Ravara and the Mac Cals have been in the mix all season long. That third propelled them over Mac Cal to take the Champion of Champions aggregate trophy, although like most I’m sure they would swap all the silverware of the season for the big one.
Peel Regional Police closed the Grade 2 final and opened with a tune called Milwaukee Gigglers, although I wasn’t laughing by this stage in the proceedings – nursing a numb backside and cold extremities whilst trying to pluck up the courage to use one of the on site ‘facilities’ at after 4pm in the day. Anyway, Peel handled the last slot well with creditable piping and but for a disappointing Drumming and Ensemble score would have been moderately higher on the list. Taking the sixth position and minor silver will be a proof of quality in this field, scoring (4 6 9 9). I’m glad to see the band in strong health and building to be a strong contender in the grade going forward. It was a pleasure to hear them a few times over the last week.
That was the lot, and you and I might have moved things here and there, but the outcome was for sure City of Dunedin, from Florida – free and clear of the field and I suspect the P/M’s business will have to wait for a couple of days before he and his wife get back to it. I suspect the success will assist and rub off on the other bands in the city and its widely lauded school programme. Those Highland Games will be quite a party next spring. As for promotion? Who knows, but others have gone up for less and I think there is congestion in what the Editor calls G1B, and there are some up there who would find it hard to compete with the top of the G2 roster. That should not get in the way of a band deserving of promotion. And as if there are lessons for all of us in what Dunedin achieved. Scraping into the final in that sixth slot and recovering from being last in drumming to World Champions shows the resilience of Eric MacNeill’s drum corps, because after a couple of years there, post SFU, it is very much his product and output. It was a nice touch to see the SFU cheering him as he passed by en route to collect the silverware. Of course SFU epitomise that sort of spirit.
In closing, I’d like to thank all of the Grade 2 bands through the season for the enjoyment they brought to the various pieces of green field they performed on (and odd hall and car park). These columns were initially inspired by your efforts and the fact that the grade was not terribly well covered by commentators, reporters and media. That has changed significantly in the last few seasons that it almost became de rigueur to say, ‘Oh Grade 2 is the most interesting grade you know’. We should also applaud the great coverage by the RSPBA digital team and videomeister out there in sun and rain tweeting clips of openings, and then full video following within a day or so. It is a phenomenal effort and one we can all mistakenly take for granted.
I’m also hugely entertained by Big Rab and his show, the sheer enthusiasm is infectious (in a nice way) and he also sparks the Gracenote Vortex boys with their podcasts, which, with regularity of Hayley’s Comet, are very interesting listens, so more of those would be good. I did miss the acerbic Twitter commentary from the rogue alternative of one of the most loved and widely known broadcasting judges – although I really do understand why they discontinued, but some were simply astoundingly near the bone. Then there is Dronechorus, a giant in production. All part of the rich tapestry that is pipe banding.
In closing and in the spirit of the excellent ‘Slunge in the Bidet’ and Fergus Muirhead’s ‘Pipers Tale’ I thought I’d get to grips with some of the idiosyncrasies I witness through the season. The bands and people remain anonymous but you all know who you are.
The drum corps, where two drummers click sticks at the line just before the off. The snare drum line sliding sporrans to the side at the same time. The piper who holds any finger, except a thumb, over the mouthpiece in the approach to the line. The band that gets ‘parked’ at the Worlds march on to the far right, regardless of there being a space for them in the centre or not. A piper who will play a tune (I don’t recognise) as the very last thing on his chanter (and at rapid tempo) in the prep for a competition. A band ‘manager’ who stacks drum cases and pipe cases in a certain pattern inside the tent every time. Those who have the ‘same’ breakfast before a Major. It goes on and on you might even share a few with me. It’s pipe bands and the madness of them. For those of you going on to the solo piping season in Oban, Inverness and points in between, go well. For those looking ahead to the new formatted World Solo Drumming Championships, you have nine weeks, less a few days to get ready. Tick tock. Over and Out. MacStig.