City of Washington Pipe Band, Scottish Rant (Maggie’s Music, 2000)

Sensitivity is not a word that one often thinks of first in association with the music of the Scots pipes and drums. More appropriate epithets readily come to mind: stirring, perhaps, or driving, certainly loud. Pipe bands are not usually about being sensitive. The military associations of the pipe band provide the strongest and most immediate imagery. Traditionally, Scottish bagpipe music is usually presented within a military context. Even outwith the regimental pipe bands, a military structure prevails: formation marching, the highly ritualistic motions of the drum major, the quasi military dress of most pipe ensembles. The war pipes are aptly named, and their role as a unifying, motivating, and, well, terrifying force in war is well documented. I well remember my own response, as a small boy and to the present day, to "the kilties" as they marched down the street: the catch in the throat, the vain attempt to walk to a different step from the parade. I suspect I am not unique in this.

The City of Washington Pipe Band, in Scottish Rant, manages all this inspirational power without leaving the listener with the windswept, or rather, sandblasted feeling that many pipe band recordings seem to accomplish. For this recording, the much-honoured band joins forces with the award winning Scots-American fiddler, Bonnie Rideout, in an album that is not only a showcase of virtuosity and versatility, but . . . well, sensitive.

The pace over the production is nicely varied; rather than turning the tap on in track one and screwing it off on the final cut, the album has a nice ebb and flow to it. A variety of musical arrangements from full band to small ensembles are used, and repertoire is drawn from a number of sources. The album opens with Asturian reels and jigs from Spain, swinging seamlessly from full band to fiddle lead to solo pipes, nicely underscored by cittern and bodhran. Irish tunes -- "The Congress Reel" and "The Swallow Tailed Coat" -- follow, including a drum solo on American colonial rope-tension snare drums. A selection of old piping reels researched by Bonnie is played on smallpipes along with fiddle, guitar and bodhran.

Of the quieter pieces, Bonnie Rideout's arrangement of "Dunblane," written in compassion for the people of a town devastated by a senseless atrocity, is agonizingly lovely. Featuring fiddle, viola and solo bagpipe, the lingering air is intensely moving. On other tracks, homage is paid to the new wave of Scottish pipers, in Gordon Duncan's "Andy Renwick's Ferret," as well as several new compositions by band members.

More standard pipe band fare is not forgotten, though. As you would expect, the pipes and drums are in full muster for "9/8 Marches," "The Competition Set," and of course, "Scotland the Brave." Also standard is "Amazing Grace." Is it just me, or is this becoming a bit of a cliché? The album notes indicate that it is played in "traditional and gospel style." Not a tradition of long standing, certainly, but perhaps one that is a little overdone.

Overall, this is a recording to be recommended. The musicians are world class; The City of Washington Pipe Band is one of only two U.S. bands to be admitted to premier rank by the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, and Bonnie Rideout is equally at home, and welcome, at festivals from Edinburgh to Washington. Her uniquely rhythmic style and use of drones make a perfect fit with the pipes and drums. The material is varied, enjoyable and enlightening, and the arrangements highlight the different instruments, the contrasts emphasizing the strengths of each. Sensitive? Scottish Rant is a feast for the senses.

[Alistair Brown]

The City of Washington Pipe Band has a Web site here.