Worlds 2019 Grade Two Review: St Thomas Alumni Out on Their Own

Our man on a mission has followed Grade 2 all season, knows the bands inside out (the same as his socks). Let’s wind back a few days to the Worlds where he can be found with his good ear to the ground watching and listening, that helmet no impediment to his pertinent postulations…..

Greetings from the sun kissed and simultaneously drenched arena 2, perched on the teeny tiny stand on the north side and a well attended Grade 2 final under the eyes of Captain Ken Eller and Peter Hunt on Piping, with Alexander Steele listening to the tappers and rollers and Nat Russell GC, OAM the Ensemble adjudicator. For those who like to mention the judging geographical split, work it out for yourself. It’s not relevant. 

They were there to score the best of the Grade from the earlier Medley Qualifier, of which more later, through the set piece March, Strathspey and Reel discipline. And for those questioning the old MSR, it is the ‘dressage’ of the competition, testing the technical aspects and remains crucially important whether the Twittersphere or FaceApp, Whatgram malarkey can hold their attention for four minutes or not. Grade 2 bands draw their MSR at the line whilst the Medley is one of one.

By MacStig

I’ll get to the finalists in a moment, but firstly a word about some of the fallers at the first hurdle and the surprises readers might be wondering about. Now omnipotence is not something MacStig has mastered yet and, with both qualifiers running simultaneously, I decided to go to where I thought the winners would emerge from and get a grasp of Closkelt and St Thomas Alumni, playing in Qualifier 1. Apologies to Qualifier 2, and I can only make mention of that heat in passing.

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I closed my book after hearing St Thomas [pictured top], last year’s runner up and fourth in 2017. The sound was intact and better than I had heard at North Berwick, locking in, technically together and musical. No wavering drones, no blowing issues to speak of and this looked like a relaxed run in the west end of Glasgow park rather than playing for a place in a Worlds final. I had Closkelt second though and Pipe Band Club third in piping, and in retrospect disagreed marginally with the scores given by those who matter. It made no difference as the first six went through anyway. Portlethen sneaked in on an Ensemble Preference indicating the place of Scottish bands in the ranking, for those who are interested.

Closkelt celebrate their Champion of Champions title

The Grade 2 final top six, with the exception of Closkelt and a rising Uddingston Strathclyde, was a tale of overseas bands. And with so few overseas bands in Grade 1, we can understand the why a bit better. I did think Q1 was the toughest of the two, witnessed by a decent band from North Stratton in Canada and Kyle Warren’s Aussie crew Hawthorn not making it. A word too for the City of Discovery – the best I’ve heard them, period. But maybe too challenging a technical piece for all. The young tenor drummer gets player of the day though. Well done that chap.

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In that other heat, which I repeat I didn’t hear, the stand out results on the down side were the north east of Scotland representatives, with the new band configurations up there failing to deliver Highland Granite or more surprisingly, Buchan Peterson to the final. Kilchoman Isle of Islay must get the ‘hit the bar’ award (for a second year) with an aggregate 4th on Piping score alone, but finishing 7th by a point. Worcester Kiltie made it through in 6th. 

The G2 Arena is rather close to the G1 amphitheatre and the steward had to wait for the PA over there to end before interjecting. Here were my noted thoughts as the bands rolled in from up the slope and marched downhill to the circle. They played in order of qualifying with Q1 going first. 

First off, the soon to be anointed World Champions, St Thomas Alumni drew set 1, leading with a roaring Lord Alexander Kennedy. The Brown brothers corps snares were a touch flat to me but other than that, this was Shotts à la Kilpatrick and Duthartesque in composition. The pipes? Tone with a capital T and full marks to the P/M Gattinger and his well seasoned Pipe Sergeant Mike Cusack, still ably marshalling, for bringing that sound to the arena. Even with a bit of rushing, the ‘Smith’ was a great reel to finish. The one to beat for sure. (1 1 7 1) to win.

 The sun brightened and we probably witnessed the warmest part of the day, so no doubt those tuning up the hill were trying to deal with the rapidly changing atmospherics. Second in to the circle Julie Brinklow’s Portlethen, or Porty to me. It seemed tight and quite constrained from the off in Set 1 and I did think the Loch Katrine was slightly down on tempo, particularly compared to the rockets who had just gone through before them. That relativity is something judges note.

However, Porty made the final, and that was their final, they have that win in Inverness (European Champions) to hold for the year, and will come back better in 2020. I have particularly enjoyed listening to them this season. Finally, my final apology for the Portlethan spelling error strewn piece way back, and now forever Porty. (9 9 12 11). 12th. A great season overall. 

Manorcunningham snares were off to the races right away in Highland Wedding and I thought they might be in business towards the top end of the drum list. Something happened to the piping sound at the turn in, I know not what but I also noted a judge writing plenty – of course it might well have been ‘good attack’. They got the worst of the gusting breeze and the drying wind did cause some degradation as the set moved along. There might have been some blowing issues at the reel but those tenors – wow. Gordon Carson has a very well put together sound and they will be back next season, something we should all be looking forward to. They did get a bit of a reward with a 4th in drumming, and I might have had them a place higher. (6 10 4 8) for 7th and just outside the silver pots. 

Uddingston Strathclyde (US) has settled since those early steps in the grade in Paisley and that British Championship all those weeks ago. Piping is becoming assured and has fewer issues here and there. I walked around to get a better look at the drum line. In the short march down the hill this was very confident, relaxed, a tune played a million times, yet tension crept in at the line. Some of that up the hill relaxation would have improved the outcome.

Uddingston Strathclyde…on the move upwards

I must mention the strathspey drumming – exemplary in my book, so much so that some of the line was almost crouching down to underscore the pulse. Next season this lot will be there or thereabouts and well balanced in both departments. I had them on the list and they made it in 6th by an Ensemble Preference. Their restless desire may mean they are unhappy with 6th and I understand that, but it will create a different story for next year. This band is on the move upwards. (10 7 5 6)

Pipe Major Paul Hughes led a confident Pipe Band Club into the circle with their Set 2, and what impressed me was how the sound remained very strong even after the turn in, not the usual drop in volume. That was impressive and I thought their snares might win the day but for less dynamics in the Strathspey. They should be very well pleased with their visit. Well put together ensemble where the drum corps held back to complement the pipers. (4 6 3 2) for a clear third place in the World Championships and one point off Closkelt in second. Bravo PBC and I’m sure they would have been celebrating an Aussie win against the All Blacks too, and all with one eye on the Test Match. 

David Chesney’s Colskelt band was next up and they outmatched all in tone and technicality – but for St Thomas. Maybe a slight difference in chanter sound but tiny margins of difference. What a season they have had. I know they might well have swapped all of it for a win at Glasgow. It simply wasn’t to be on the day and I had them second, but well ahead of anyone else. No other band could have challenged in my view. (3 2 6 3). I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to their music this past season, so thank you Closkelt and well done on a good few months. Congratulations to their Drum Major James Kennedy second in the World Adult final. 

Peel Regional Police had an outing at North Berwick and the week before had picked up the North American Grade 2 title at the Glengarry games in Maxville, Ontario. The pace in was stately and not cracking along, but I liked that and the sound held well through the march to strathspey. There were some tired pipers out there, blowing hard and drone waving the sure sign in the reel. Drumming was more simplistic and I would have marked that down for complexity deficiency rather than anything else. It was like pipers playing up and drums playing catch up. They came through though and were my surprise name on the list at 5th (5 4 11 4). I just wonder if there is the political will to create a once and for all Ontario challenger band with the likes of the Frasers and Peel sensibly joining forces to mount a Grade 1 challenge?

Coming in to this final, Royal Burgh of Annan was on my list of silverware recipients and I have it say I was slightly disappointed by their set. There might have been a double tone at the intro, and as ever my caveat is one bad ear, people talking all around and being far away. That didn’t help perhaps and they just sounded off their best, which meant my forecast of having them in the top six had to be set aside. Glory was gone for them. (8 8 8 7) for 9th for the newly promoted band. They will be a better outfit next season and they have added some real oomph to the grade.

Annan from earlier in the season…the Worlds not their best run

Calum Gilchrist’s Celtic (Nelson) from New Zealand were up next, and I’m glad I had listened in at North Berwick to get some heads up. This is a fine band and greatly added to the G2 contest, heading into the circle in impressive form with a strong sound from the off. It held, and I was wondering if it could take third behind St T and Closkelt. It bettered that in piping aggregate and indeed the piping judges has them tied with Closkelt. Drumming was off the pace and saw them ease down a little overall (2 3 10 5) for 4th place. 

Worcester Kiltie, a Grade 3 winner a few years back and now firmly ensconced in Grade 2, was next. A much better day for them than that ankle deep in water day in Lurgan at the UKs. The P/M has roots back in Scotland and I heard he was a former tutor at Dollar Academy from way back. They got their teeth into things here and whilst it wasn’t going to trouble the prize list it was a much more representative sound than Lurgan. Nicely done, good dynamics from the drum corps and technically strong piping. There were a few freelancers here and there and the hefty set took its toll on blowing. They should be pleased and I certainly hope they will be back soon. 8th place (7 5 9 9). 

The overseas bands continued to roll in with the LA Scots up next. This is a seriously strong sounding band and but for what might have been a very early tiny squeak they were off to a great start but I fear it went downhill from there for the pipe corps. If the small, unsettling error didn’t knock the the confidence it was enough to make it slightly lacklustre. So often this kind of thing just deflates what would be a good strong run. I concentrated on the drum corps and they were having none of it. This was top of the range technique and a brightly lit score throughout. I had them first in drumming from the runners so far and certainly up there. (12 12 2 12) for the band with more 1s and 2s than anyone. Delighted to see them at the World Championships and hopefully again in 2020.

The final band on, Ravara, has had a good season in the main, albeit with a few odd looking scores here and there. From the off the drum corps knocked LA Scots of the perch and slipped into berth 1 for me. Piping was there or thereabouts but not going to challenge the top tone brigade. It was strong but from a qualifying heat several hours earlier maybe fatigue played a part. Waiting, waiting. Ravara (11 11 1 10) for 10th overall. 

St Thomas leave the field after a job well done

That was it, the 2019 Grade 2 Final and worthy winners in St Thomas Alumni, who have tried and tried again, finally taking the top spot. I always had them as the likely winners of the big one. Nearer to home Closkelt was the knockout band of the season with the beautifully sweet tone from one of the best reedmakers around. They deserve a special mention and the Champion of Champions is hugely deserved. 

The Scottish based bands looked to Porty, Annan and Uddingston, all promoted bands, for a glimmer of hope and I’ve had little to write about the Mac Cals this year after their blisteringly good centenary season last year and yesterday I learned of the departure of P/M David Wilton. So more musical chairs in the north east and the question remains about the volume of players needed to progress a band to the top flight. Or one super band to take on all comers. 

I don’t see any promotions domestically and even if St T’s US association promotes them, there is no guarantee they’ll make G1 here – just like Dunedin, last year’s Grade 2 winner. In the other direction it is possible the Grade 2 ranks might be increased from Grade 1. There might well be a sort out going on up there. Will the RSPBA go for a 12 band Grade 1? 

  • Stay tuned for MacStig’s final bulletin of the season.

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4 thoughts on “Worlds 2019 Grade Two Review: St Thomas Alumni Out on Their Own

  1. Quite disappointed with these articles through the 2019 season when you look at everything that is happened in grade 2.

    They could essentially be written by someone staring at the summaries, as they always just reflect them.

    A bit more in-depth analysis and thoughts would be appreciated. For instance, what judges opinion does he feel was right at Paisley? Or what happened with Ravara at the World’s to have their piping so low “Piping was there or thereabouts but not going to challenge the top tone brigade.” does not really give indication as to why they received 11 and 11. They are a better corp than that.

    1. If you are going to criticise our freely given work then please have the common decency to specify where you think we have been deficient. Ed

      1. There have been 2 examples entered within comment 1;

        – Paisley review was lacklustre in addressing the obvious of the discrepancies between the 2 piping judges.
        – One of the top UK based bands, Ravara, received 2 2nd lasts in piping at the World’s. That would be considered quite a shock result and deserves some more input than offered above especially as they didn’t even make the top 6 despite their drumming triumph.

        Reading through the reviews for a few seasons they really could be written staring at the summaries and little else. There is never a disagreement in a result like a drumming placing being extremely high or low.

        If McStig is to be anonymous and able to cut through and dissect grade 2 then perhaps discussing obvious talking points and giving his take on results other than everything seeming to match summaries would be most welcome.

        1. You need to check your facts Mr MacHammond. Having read MacStig’s recent and not so recent contributions you are wrong on just about every point you make and I have to tell you that this sort of unfounded criticism has no place on Piping Press. If you do not like MacStig’s contributions please read G2 articles elsewhere if you can find them. The Editor.

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