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Dressed to the Kilt
By Bill Ketzer
Photos by Chris Shields

Life with the Schenectady Pipe Band is a fair amount of fun and games - as well as some serious piping, drumming, and competing.

Is there anything worn under the kilt?

No, it’s all in working order.

—Spike Milligan

It is freaking cold. In like a lion, they say, and such is the hideousness of March’s merciless, frigid clasp on the Capital Region. Some even curse their ancestors for condemning them to this cruel locale so many years ago. But not the Scots. Not Clan Munro. Not Clans Farrigan, Maclean or Carmichael. No, there is little evidence of the damned at the Ancient Order of Hibernians on State Street in Schenectady as the families of the Schenectady Pipe Band converge to rehearse for Albany’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade (their first performance of the year), kicking off a staggering schedule of public appearances that ends only at another beginning: the late-summer competition season. We take stools at the bar as rounds are ordered and playful barbs welcome the members as they shake off the frost from the clear March night. Having been passed over three times by the bartender, drum sergeant Tim Heck clasps his singles expectantly, an act not unnoticed by piper Pat MacGloin.

“You, uh, waiting for a drink there Tim?” MacGloin asks.

“Either that or a stripper,” comes the forlorn reply, which seems to finally catch the attention of the barkeep as the husky MacGloin turns his attentions toward me.

“So you have a plan man?” he asks after introducing me to several band members. “How are you going to do this?” I tell him that Bill Munro, the current chair of the band’s board of directors, is due to have a sit-down. But first, I say, I figure I’ll watch the band do their thing for a little while.

Bill’s brother Bob, also a drummer, hears this and looks over at longtime bass drummer Lou Schenck, a towering presence even when sitting on a barstool. They hoist their pints to the air. “We’re already doing it!”

And so it goes for another half hour. One wonders if they’ll ever get around to rehearsing, but one by one they trickle into a large conference room in back of the club, where the skirl of bagpipe chanters and the omnipresent (and some would say omniscient) thrum of drone pipes present an aural sensation that predates the birth of Christ by at least 1,000 years, a spirited but haunting call that has led nations into battle and brought tears to even the most hardened men. The droll ribbings are left at the bar, and the musicians get serious; all walks of life, all ages, sexes and sizes, facing each other in two semi-circles with pipes on one side, drums on the other. Double-stroked snares, crisp and dry as bone, call all to “The Green Hills of Tyrol,” and it’s almost as if the circle of life reignites right there, reaching back into the band’s rich history, touching it loud and direct, as if to sooth the Hound of Culann himself, complicated by oaths and absolved by obligation.

Formed in 1917, the Schen ectady Pipe Band are among the oldest bagpipe bands in the United States. The group’s first pipe major, Isaac Riddell, was a piper in the 92nd Regiment Gordon Highlanders of Aberdeen, Scotland, before coming to the United States (hence the band’s Gordon Highlanders’ uniform).

“My grandfather came from Scotland, from Inverness, when he was about 17, and he played with the Schenectady Pipe Band. [He] taught a lot of people how to play,” Munro recalls. “Jack and I started piping about 35 years ago, taking lessons with the band, and a few years later we were performing. Prior to the ’70s we had never competed. . . . We were strictly a performance band, a street band. Marched up and down the street and played at inaugurations, college events and things like that. We still do of course, but the other dimension is competition, and that’s serious piping and serious drumming, and you progress through the grades, Grade I being the highest. We’ve never been there but we’ve been as high as Grade II.”

Munro describes the act of competing—a much different affair than street performing—with the kind of reverence reserved for royalty. In fact, the prospect held such appeal for the band as a whole that they decided to reestablish the then-defunct Capital District Scottish Games as a venue for such talents, a move that has won the band local popularity and a groundswell of commercial support for almost 30 years.

“The reason we [took over the games] was that we were going to these competitions that weren’t half as good as the ones as we remembered in Schenectady,” he explains. “They weren’t as well-run, as large or as good as ours used to be, so in 1978 we incorporated, became a 501(c)3 and took it over.”

Sponsored by another family (Clan MacRae) from 1939 to 1966, the Schenectady Pipe Band have since built the Scottish Games into the largest band competition of its kind in the United States, drawing more than 40 bands and 15,000 spectators to its Northeastern U.S. Championships at the Altamont Fairgrounds every Labor Day Weekend. It is a favorite regional festival for not only pipe bands, but also for athletes and highland dancers to compete and for all to celebrate their Celtic roots.

“Bands like that it’s well-run and competitive, and they also know they’ll have a lot of fun,” says Munro. “Our real goal was to get a good competitive event that would attract a lot of bands and have really good judges, and we did that. In the meantime we made sure we got clans out there, dancers, other music too, like Enter the Haggis, The Glengarry Bhoys, the McKrells and everybody else. It’s an all-encompassing event that attracts more and more people, but the biggest benefit is attracting people who want to learn how to play bagpipes and drums. Over the years the talent we’ve gotten out of this has been really awesome. We have kids who start really early and learn their instruments so that they continuously improve.”

There is a hearty emphasis on youth development (they’ve even created a scholarship fund for such purposes). “We just really try to solicit schools wherever we can to get kids interested,” Schenk says. “That’s where we see the future. They learn so much more quickly than adults. Learning is limited by age.”

DuBois agrees. “You get kids that haven’t discovered the opposite sex yet, or soccer or baseball, we want to get chanters in their hands. We want them to see for themselves that this is a viable option, another avenue you can choose to meet people from all over the place. And really these are friendships that are going to be with you for life. The music is what bonds you.”

“It keeps you together as a family,” Schenck says. “There’s a hell of a lot of good memories, that’s for sure. My parents grew up with the Munros, so I was always surrounded by it and I knew I wanted to play at an early age. As pipers and drummers, the competitions are our family vacations. We spend our vacations piping.”

“My honeymoon lasted four days because I had to be back for the games,” adds DuBois.

Schenck laughs. “And his wife has never forgiven him!”

“We’ve always had a program, but it wasn’t always as formalized as it is now,” says Munro. “For instance, myself and my brothers . . . all our kids play bagpipes and drums. They won’t listen to their parents, but you get someone else to teach ’em and it’s fine, you know? Then at the games we started to track other young people. . . . Our objective is to get them so they can play all the tunes that we play on the street. In most cases this is the simpler music, and this keeps them interested so they start to get the competitive tunes.”

This strategy has paid off. The band started competing back in the ’70s, and as musical skills and the overall standard of their pipe and drums corps improved, the group began to win—big. Over the years they have been awarded numerous titles, and have even traveled to Scotland three times to compete in the World Pipe Band Championships (“Against the best in the world,” Munro proudly claims), returning in 1993 with a first place “Dress and Drill” award. On that same trip, they accepted an invitation to play at the Military Tattoo at Stirling Castle for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders’ annual retreat. It marked the first time in history that any band outside of Scotland had been granted that privilege.

“We went over and did, you know, the American set, ‘Grand Old Flag,’ ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ and all that stuff and they loved it,” Munro says, beaming at the memory. “We learned a lot from being in the tattoo because they had some very good deportment and discipline guys, drum majors who were responsible to get this bunch from all over the place to operate together for one night . . . and you had one afternoon to teach ’em! So we learned a lot about how we do our Scottish Games now through that experience.”

If competition is where the glory is, street performing is what keeps the band in the black.

“Competitions are expensive. . . . You’ve gotta send people to wherever it is, put them up, and even if you place, the prize money isn’t enough to cover your expenses,” Munro warns. “The most we’ve ever won for first place is $2,000, so you’ve gotta perform. Between the two uniforms we use, it costs us $3,500 per person, and we have at the very least 35 members in uniform right now, so do the math.”

“Performance is our bread and butter from March until June,” DuBois adds. “Probably the most important thing about it is we get to expose people to our music, the culture, and it gives us a great opportunity to do that. All members are members of the performance band, doing the parades and such, but if you have the gumption and want to do the work, then you can get into competition. It’s very hard work. The standards are much higher. There are tunes in that repertoire that we have to work to maintain above and beyond what we do in the street.”

“Memorial day is hell week. It starts on Wednesday before the weekend and we do a performance every day, sometimes two,” says Schenck. “That’s the time of year when it starts to get hot and sweaty. The kilt starts to reek, and we just go nonstop.”

“What we really want to do no matter what is to be able to play for pleasure, for ourselves and others,” says Munro. “And we also want to be the best at what we do. Performing is great fun and competition is the means to be better performers in every sense. It’s all about music. It’s really about music more than anything else.”

At this point Pat MacGloin returns to the table, Heineken in hand. “I want to leave a word with you, and that word is ‘swagger,’” he says, forehead against mine. “We go out there and we are right full of ourselves, man. We are like Vikings, that’s the way it is.”

Munro laughs. “Oh it is a blast. It has to be. I don’t think anybody would do it if it wasn’t.”

The members of the Schenectady Pipe Band are actively seeking young pipers and drummers as part of their Youth Development Program. Those interested may contact Marc DuBois by e-mail at Bobofetercairn@hot mail.com, or visit the band’s Web site at www.schenectadypipeband.com. The 2005 Capital District Scottish Games will be held September 3 and 4 in Altamont. For more information, visit www.scotgames.com.

 


ROUGH MIX

Super 400

ONE TIME ONLY Those quirky Albany Underground Artists are at it again. In collaboration with Barter One, Community Arts United and 200 Proof Magazine, they will bring a one-night-only arts-and-music show to the beautiful building at 1 Engelwood Place (at the corner of State Street and Englewood, where State meets Western Avenue) in Albany. Lark Tavern regulars Nouveau Chill (including DJ Michael Campion, saxophonist Brian Patneaude, keyboardist Nick Lue and percussionist Danny Whelchel) will perform at this event. If you have trouble finding the place, we are told that a giant necktie installation will point you in the right direction.

DOUBLE SHOUT-OUT Pitch Control Music—the hiphop collective who advocate “breaking [away] from the same no-meaning-no-soul-no-direction-no-need-to-say-anything-at-allness”—are proud to announce two new debut records, by two of their lesser-heard artists: The Exception by Shyste and Glory Days by AWar. The Pitch Control posse will be at the Lark Tavern in Albany tomorrow (Friday) night to celebrate the release of these albums; in addition to Shyste and AWar, performers will include Nacerima Records artist El Gant and Diabolic form the Stronghold Crew in New York City. There will be a live visual performance by Maxwell Dunbar (we hear he’s painting a mural; don’t worry—we were told that there will be no aerosols). Pitch Control founders Sev Static and Dezmatic will host. The show, which is $5, starts at 10 PM. For more information, call the Lark Tavern at 463-9779.

LIVE, LOCAL. . . . Area rockers Super 400 have decided to record their next two shows in order to produce a live album. According to bassist Lori Friday, “the older songs have taken on new forms over the years, and the newer ones keep sounding better show to show, so we wanted to get a proper re cord of it for release.” Avid fans, take note: If you scream loud enough, you might actually be heard on the album—the recordings will take place locally, at the band’s March 12 gig at the Lark Tavern and their April 23 show at the Ale House in Troy. The new live album is expected to be out in the late spring. For more information or to contact the band, visit super400.com.

SWIMMING WITH THE BIG FISH Local beloved electronica artist Sara Ayers, who was voted Best Electronica by Metroland a couple years back, is featured on the new Chemical Brothers album, Push the Button, which was released at the end of January on Virgin Records. The Brothers’ “Come Inside” prominently samples Ayers’ “Everyday We Die a Little,” which originally appeared on her CD Voices on Dark Woods Recordings. For more information on Ayers, visit her Web site at saraayers.com.

YOU KEEP MAKING NEWS, WE’LL KEEP WRITING ABOUT YOU Soul-rock duo Mudfunk (formerly the Sean Rowe Project) were selected to perform at the first Motor City Music Conference in Detroit. This event—modeled after other successful conferences like SXSW, CMJ and MC2—will showcase more than 400 bands in genres spanning gospel and country to hiphop, rock and techno. In related news, the band also have been invited to be one of 60 bands who will perform at this year’s Dewey Beach Popfest in Dewey Beach, Del. For more information, visit the band’s new Web site at mudfunk.com. For more information on the Motor City Conference, visit motorcitymusic.com.

WE’RE BIGGER, BETTER, AND NOW WE’RE GONNA MAKE NOISE Since the Troy branch of the Daily Grind was kicked out of the tiny little corner where it resided in the Keenan Building in Troy, it found a much larger niche at 462 Third St. The owners of the Grind decided to put their huge new space to good use: They now have a weekly open mic hosted by Steve Candlen, and starting this weekend, they will have free Friday night shows from 8 to 11 PM. It all starts tomorrow (Friday) night when Sensemaya take the stage. For more information, call the Daily Grind at 272-8658.

—Kathryn Lurie

IT’S NOT TECHNICALLY MUSIC-RELATED, BUT . . . We feel like we’ve done a poor job of reporting on last week’s hacking of Paris Hilton’s T-Mobile Sidekick II, so we went snooping through her notes and found the following tucked between listings for “eggplant dike ass” and Fred Durst: “Mike sandwich met at esquire looking for bands 917 [number withheld].” For those who aren’t familiar with Mike Sandwich, his self-named “electric boogaloo” band are based in New York and play our neck of the woods regularly. Although we were unable to reach him directly, Web site Defamer.com was (via Instant Messenger), and Sandwich revealed to them that he received close to 100 calls in the days following the hack, mostly wannabe scenesters and “random calls from hopeless garage band guys.” He joked that the hack was a publicity stunt, and that publicity-whore Hilton was “getting kind of courtney loveish.” His missed-call log took a more serious stance: “100 frickin’ calls in an hour and a half? Bollocks!” Sandwich has since changed his number (don’t even try it), and resumed work on his new album, which is due later this year.

—John Brodeur



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