Red Hot Chilli Pipers Rock the Bagpipes in Celtic Style at Flagler Auditorium Tuesday
FlaglerLive | February 24, 2014
Within Celtic culture, even on solemn occasions there’s always a sense of liveliness. Think “Danny Boy” at funerals. Not to mention those cascades of beer. And those bagpipes, which are played at the funerals of United States service members for a reason—including connections to Scottish martial history and the fact that many Irish immigrants during the 1800s were forced to take dangerous jobs, often as firemen and policemen. (In Flagler County, Palm Coast Fireman Patrick Juliano leads his own band of bagpipers, appearing at numerous solemn and not-so-solemn occasions throughout the year.)
What about on actually raucous occasions? Would it sound odd to imagine your favorite rock or modern classics, songs like “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, “Clocks” by Coldplay, or ACDC’s “Thunderstruck,” played on bagpipes? Or might you think: Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner? Either way, the unique stylistic mash up is closing the Gaelic divide between the Scottish Highlands and the Flagler Auditorium Tuesday evening (Feb. 24), by way of a nine-member group of kilt-wearing musicians from the British Isles calling themselves the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, an obvious pun on the American rock band.
“It’s a combo of bagpipes and rock and roll music that we’ve mashed together and call ‘bagrock,’ So we take a four-minute song, and do some classic rock and roll along with some Scottish or Irish jigs in it,” says Kevin MacDonald, the group’s director. The group will perform about 25 pieces in a two-hour show. The Pipers also pay homage to Queen, John Mayer, ZZ Top and others.
MacDonald, one of the original five members, acknowledges that a couple of their songs have been played on bagpipes before, but “it was us who really took it to the next level and expanded the genre.”
Bagpipes began appearing in European art and iconography as early as the second millennium. They’re mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written around 1380. The first recorded use in the Scottish Highlands is said to have been in a French history mentioning them at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547. But age is not determinism.
“When we were about 21 or 22, we just thought there’s got to be more you can do with a traditional instrument,” MacDonald says. The next logical thought was to “play some rock covers on the bagpipes, and kind of try something new. It seemed to blast people’s imagination and our own imagination and then, once you start on a path and you try to find new ways to expand it, that’s what we’ve done over ten years.” (The band was formed in 2002.)
Gary O’Hagan, another band member says, “Different people in the band have different approaches while creating our ‘Bagrock’ sound. I like to find a popular song and figure out if it is possible to play it on the bagpipes. The bagpipes actually only have the ability to play nine notes, so we can’t play all the songs that we’d like to. I then usually like to keep the chorus on the bagpipes and then integrate a traditional pipe tune into where the verse would normally be.”
Only about half the songs are tributes. The rest are “traditional piping” with rock music providing the backing. The piper’s best selling album is 2010’s “Music for the Kilted Generation,” a parody of the 1990s album by the British electronic music group “Prodigy,” “Music for the Jilted Generation.”
As to riding the homonymic coattails of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of the best-selling groups of all time, “That was an accident, actually,” MacDonald claims. One of the guys in the group was painting his apartment with his girlfriend one day, after the original five had already decided on a name, he says. His girlfriend, honestly misreading the title, placed an album by the Red Hot Chili Peppers—whose style can be described as California-style funk rock—in among his bagpipe CD collection. “And the name was born,” MacDonald says. “As easy as that—with a stroke of genius.”
As the group continues to grow in popularity, with the near name-sake, the pipers will hopefully benefit from the opposite mistake.
While MacDonald is effusive about his group’s musical alchemy, like many serendipitous band success stories, all of this seemed unlikely, especially to him. He never thought they’d win when they appeared on “When Will I Be Famous,” the BBC talent show that launched the Cilli Pipers in 2007. “With a lot of these talent shows, most people get a year or 18 months of their so-called 15 minutes of fame. We’ve been very fortunate there, we’ve continued to build on that over a period of seven years, this month,” says MacDonald.
“The actual technique of playing rock music on bagpipes is pretty straightforward, it’s actually the quality of the musicianship that probably sets us apart,” MacDonald says. “The actual coming up of ideas isn’t overly complicated. We created something new, and the snowball effect just kept getting bigger, bigger, and bigger.” Almost like the abstract movement of art, he says, “somebody creates something, it seems to work, and the popularity for it seems to keep on going. For us, it’s making sure the quality of musicianship is always there to kind of support the new ideas.”
Of everyone involved with the band (the band has grown to employ about 30 people), they’ve all played at the very top level, MacDonald says, whether it be those playing bagpipe or another instrument. They also utilize guitars, keyboards, drums. Steven Graham is a seven time world champion snare drummer. They also have four degrees among them from the prestigious Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
O’Hagan says he loved music in general, particularly the 70s rock band Queen, before he discovered his affection for his ancestral instrument. Yet today he finds himself ensconced to a degree in an imperialistic aspect of the group’s accent.
“Being Scottish it is important for me to spread our music, our culture and our traditions. We get to experience many different ways of life and cultures as we travel the world with our music and so it’s important to me to share my heritage with these people.”
The most surprising audience to take to them were the Chinese, MacDonald says. But then again, his methodology is simple, solid and universal. “So, even if things really don’t go right, if you smile and you’re having fun, then I think you’ll win most audiences over.”
“The most surreal moment of any of our lives,” MacDonald says, was when they played at the European festival in Lyons, France in 2008, just as part of the opener. The crowd took to them so well they were invited back the following year to perform their own concert. “That was the first key moment we realized we’d done something really spectacular.” He remembered saying at the time, “Man, this is real. This is what a rock star must feel like.”
The Red Hot Chilli Pipers come to the Flagler Auditorium for one night only, February 25, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39 for adults and $28 for youths. For more ticket information, go to the auditorium’s website.