The evening began with a single bagpipe playing in darkness; once the lights raised to reveal the tiered ranks of Chris Armstrong's Scottish Power Pipe Band, the combined visual and aural impression of the once-crowned 'best dressed pipe band' was almost overwhelming. An appearance early on of Drum Major Billy Jordan showing off his games-winning abilities with the mace was a flashy spectacle, although after a near-fumble halfway through his performance, I can't have been the only audience member to have considered preparing for a last-minute dive under the seats should the dazzling display come undone given the heat of the Concert Hall lighting.
A definite highlight of the pipe band-only first half was a performance by Scottish Power's quartet group. launching head-first into Back on Track, described by compere Roddy Macleod as a semi-sequel to Mark Saul's famous bagpipe piece Hellbound Train, the quartet played finger-blisteringly fast along to a funk-led backing track of bass and drums. It was perhaps a pity that the group wasn't playing alongside other live musicians for this section, but given the tightness of the four-piece and the level of beat-perfect playing on display, it was in some ways even more impressive that they could keep such perfect time the whole way through to a pre-recorded track.
The full pipe band ended their part in the first half with two sets of reels which entirely justified the title of tonight's gig Energy, surely inspiring confidence in the band when it comes to this weekend's world championships.
The final performance of the first half was by Scottish Power's drum corp, led by Barry Wilson. Their piece seemed to use the familiar rolls and builds as much as it used gaps and silences to create a thrilling rhythm set. Not even a cringe-worthy segue into a recording of Snap's I've Got the Power complete with cheesy dance moves was enough to take away from the incredible drumming prowess on display by drum sergeant Wilson's group of mostly young drummers.
A week of music at an event like Piping Live! is guaranteed to boast some incredibly evocative moments, but nothing this week has managed to beat the awesome power of the second half of this event in which the pipe band were joined on-stage by an entire string section. Led by Finlay Macdonald and Chris Stout, the entire ensemble opened with a piece in which a single refrain was played out repeatedly and built upon by both the pipe band and the orchestral section. The piece came to a truly haunting climax when everything disappeared, leaving Rona Lightfoot to sing the refrain a capella in the Canntaireachd tradition.
The ultimate highlight of the night came when the entire stage-filling ensemble played a selection on tunes based upon the late Martyn Bennet's work. The entire experience was even more impressive upon hearing that Chris Armstrong made the 11th hour decision to have his band use chanters tuned to B flat instead of the usual bagpipe tuning in order to fit perfectly alongside the 25-piece string section - a decision which must have meant a great deal of last-minute additional preparation. The awesome heights hit by the ensemble was a testament to the versatility of the highland bagpipe – thank goodness for events like this to show off the incredible talent that exists within the traditional Scottish music scene.
Regardless of the results of Saturday's World Pipe Band Championships, Scottish Power's Energy show proved that the real winners of this week's musical celebrations are the audiences themselves. With such stunning innovation on display at the Concert Hall on Wednesday night, next year's pre-worlds concert can't come soon enough.
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