Band, Brass Band, World Music Review

Black Watch & Welsh Guards - Britannia Rules!

March 10, 2006 - Asheville, NC:

I say now, this is all very serious business, so I advise you to sit back with a good port or sherry – no! – a snifter of Drambuie!– and follow along. This is a chauvinistic musical journey of pageantry, excellent performance, some excellent music, lots of color – mostly red – and a lesson in how bagpipes can solve that whole ear wax/flossing thing.

First, this program is called "The Songs of Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales featuring the pipes, drums and highland dancers of The Black Watch and the Band of The Welsh Guards" presented by Asheville Bravo Concerts in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. No less luminaries than Lieutenant General Sir Redmond Watt, The Regimental Lieutenant Colonel; Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin, Colonel, The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment); HRH Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Rothesay, Colonel-in-Chief, the Black Watch, Colonel of The Regiment, Welsh Guards; and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Colonel-in-Chief, Welsh Guards bid you: Greetings (all with photos).

Whew! Yes, already time to top off your glass. I'll wait.

You should know these two groups are real-time military units with a proud British heritage and links to action with United States Armed Forces. Here the Band of the Welsh Guards is the musical ensemble organization of that military unit. They also stand at the Royal palace and wear the tall bearskin hat. Or is it bonnet? I forget. The Black Watch performers actually consist of front-line fighting soldiers – some have served in current-day Iraq and are quite a sight to behold. When they take the stage en-masse – drum mallets twirling, kilts whirling, horns sounding, and bagpipes gnawing – there is little question about who owns the room – or the hillside, for that matter. If I'm the enemy, and if I hear these guys crest the horizon, I'm – you know – history. Certainly, wars are shorter thanks alone to bagpipes.

Here is all you need to know: "The Napoleonic and Crimean Wars consolidated the reputation of the pipes in the British Army. The enemy were unfailingly petrified by the advancing, bayonet tipped ranks of the Highland Regiments, their kilts swaying in time and the sun glinting off their sporrans, as the unearthly skirl of the pipes propelled them through shot and shell."

I digress.

A narrator guided each of 15 program segments. This program opened with the national anthems of Great Britain and the United States, "God Save the Queen" and "The Star Spangled Banner," with both countries' flags hanging as backdrops. The moment is big emotional heartstrings stuff for this crowd. Not only were there many military veterans of both countries in the audience, but there were also listeners in authentic kilts, too. Now, just between you and me, I think we should bag all those other settings, specifically the magnified throat solos at sporting events. Here, with only brass, limited reeds, and percussion, is the finest setting of patriotic anthems you can have. Everything else is noise. (Thank you, Alex.) The counterpoint is distinct, the intonation is precise, and you get the wonderful tune served up to the ear as well as you can ever have it. Truly stirring stuff.

Then the musical journey begins in segments. March of the Pipes and Drums, The Blue Bells of Scotland; Fanfare, Britain's best; The Highland Fling and highland dancing, Music of the Valleys, The Heather Mixture including The Braes O'Marr, Ireland's Emeralds, Pipe and Band Feature here with a tip to St. Patrick's Day, and finally the March Off. A dizzying array of sights and sounds!

By the intermission, both organizations had held the stage twice, with near constant marching side-to-side or front to back, the pipes have nearly cracked the ceiling, and you can't believe the thing isn't over! Amid all the shouting of orders, both off stage and on, precision marching while performing music in such tight quarters is made to look easy. All dressed in the regalia of their unit, the Black Watch is 14 bagpipes, eight percussion, one bass drum, and all manner of red plumes and stiff upper lips. The Welsh Guard, about 25, all in bearskin tops and RED jackets, is a bit larger, with odd numbers of cornet, alto saxophone, clarinet, trombone, horn in F, Euphonium, bass drum, field snares, and hand-held cymbals.

During intermission, all these members – including the dancers, handsome young and stout young men, too – are mixing with the audience, chatting about uniforms, military service, life in merry old England, and fighting off the advances of older women trying to fondle the bearskin hats! There is tradition and meaning amid all the tartan and plumes. It is at once beautiful and fascinating.

More sherry?

The Black Watch started off the second half with a 13-tune segment titled "The Sights and Sounds of Scotland." There followed England's Roses including "Pomp and Circumstance," Combined Operations with "Anchors Away," the Marine Corps Hymn, the Air Force Anthem ("Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder") and the "Caissons Song" (with most of the audience standing), the Grand Finale with "Amazing Grace" (nary a dry eye), and Final Muster and March Off. It is here you realize the dentist appointment for October can probably be canceled and that whole hearing problem has cleared up.

It is all so... so..., you know... British. To be clear, you hear these bands for a full week afterward and, frankly, I've had worse stick in memory. The visual image alone is impressive, but these are all front-rank musicians, from the crisply ornamented pipe melodies to dense brass harmonies, and these musicians and organizations look and represent the finest of their lot. And they're fighting soldiers too!

So there! Bully!

This tour included Canada, so we can assume the program was a little different up there. Close to the end, they had only four more dates in America before heading back home. They looked and performed none the worse for wear, still had humor (such as it is), and demonstrated proper military bearing the entire time. 'Twas a grand show in all respects.