Helen Ross reports on a remarkable event in the story of the bellows-pipe revival

No, this has nothing to do with illicit drinks in a prison – but, rather, a surprise meet-up of LBPS members at a concert in Stirling’s Tolbooth, an excellent venue for folk, jazz and popular music. Living locally, I went on spec on May 9th to a concert called Distil Showcase, without knowing much about the programme in advance. I was surprised to see some familiar faces in the audience – Pete Stewart, Julian Goodacre and Matt Seattle. I had been to Distil concerts in the past, but had never seen bellows-pipers involved before. The Distil project encourages traditional musicians to explore a wider range of musical styles, while using traditional themes.
The concert was compered by David Francis and Simon Thoumire, with Mr McFall’s Chamber as the house band, supplemented by other musicians. Eleven new compositions were performed. The first of these was ‘The Road to Ae’, composed by Pete Stewart, with Callum Armstrong playing the smallpipes he has developed with maker Julian Goodacre.  The village of Ae is a real place, but Pete was illustrating an imaginary journey through ‘the unfamiliar forest of composition’ to half-seen and unvisited places. Opening the second half of the concert was Matt Seattle’s ‘Theme for the Early Days of a Better Nation’, with Matt also playing border pipes with the band.  The piece started with the tune for ‘Sic a Parcel o’ Rogues in the Nation’, but was startlingly interrupted by Rick Standley, the band’s double-bass player, tearing up the score and refusing to play such maudlin stuff, demanding something positive and uplifting. This, to the relief and delight of the audience, turned out to be part of the performance, for Matt duly complied with an evocative and inspiring arrangement of words by Border poet Dave Finnie, sung by Border fiddler Lori Watson:
“Skies whaur eagles are at their ease
Haud a welcome for wandrin geese;
Hairts that open an hauns that feed
Gie the weary warmth an shelter,Gie the hungry broth an breid.”

(There are no prizes for guessing how Matt will vote in the Referendum!).
There were many other wonderful new compositions, and I particularly liked Catriona Macdonald’s ‘Norroenn’ (or Norn), making use of the Hardanger fiddle. The concert ended cheerfully with Andrew Dunlop’s ‘Hoolie in Blue’ and Catriona Price’s ‘Ness’.
The Distil Project is supported by Creative Scotland and this was its 8th year. It was interesting to see that, amongst this celebration of the ‘cutting edge’ of Scottish traditional music culture, a gathering of some of Scotland’s most talented young traditional musicians, two of the eleven contributors, representing the piping world’s contribution, were ‘elder statesmen’ of the lowland and border world. The concert shows just how far bellows pipes have advanced over the last 40 years. They have progressed from being a freakish minority instrument to being part of mainstream traditional music events. Some of the people we have to thank for that are Pete, Matt and Julian.

Helen Ross

The assembled company:at the end of the evening

[Ed: From the Distil project website:]
Distil is a twice yearly gathering of musicians rooted in folk and traditional music, but who are interested in expanding their creative horizons into other other areas of musical practice. With the continuing success of Celtic Connections’ New Voices programme, and with other commissioning opportunities, an increasing number of musicians are becoming interested in creating music that goes beyond the boundaries of 32 bar dance and traditional song forms.
Distil, which was established in 2002, allows musicians to work with experienced practitioners from other music worlds: jazz, orchestral, contemporary, in a mutual exchange of ideas and experience.