Five minutes after I walked through the front gates at Irish Fest, a hale and hearty lad wearing a kilt strode purposefully in my direction. He glared at me, as if to say, "I dare you to make fun of my wardrobe."
No chance. I had come here specifically to see a bunch of guys wearing kilts.
My one can't-miss summer concert was not happening at the Bradley Center or the Marcus Amphitheater. It was at the Leinie Rock Stage Sunday afternoon. The Red Hot Chilli Pipers. The boys were back in town.
I was leaving the Fest last year, headed for the north exit, when I saw the Leinie's marquee advertising the Pipers, who were just finishing their evening set.
I thought, what the heck? This is just some Red Hot Chili Peppers tribute band doing a bunch of covers. No harm in checking them out. I caught the Pipers last three songs. I had never heard anything like it and vowed to catch the band's full show in 2010.
The Pipers are from Scotland, winners of the BBC program "When Will I Be Famous?" in 2007. They are plenty famous in Milwaukee. About 500 people filed in early to get the best seats, waiting in the stands an hour before showtime. I was among them and it was worth the wait.
The Pipers feature three bagpipers but so much more. I am a son of Galway (not just a saying, my family, three generations ago, really is from Galway) but in my deepest, darkest, private Celtic heritage moments, I must admit sometimes hearing a certain sameness in the music at Irish Fest; tunes that can sound a bit too whimsical for my taste.
No whimsy here. In addition to the bagpipers, there is a keyboardist, two guitarists, three drummers (one on a full kit, a second on a portable drum and a third playing bongos) and three guys in the horn section (known as "The Horn Supremacy"). A dozen dudes producing kick-butt rock and roll, a sound big enough to shatter the Blarney Stone.
And these guys know how to make an entrance. They slowly filtered on stage while the theme from "2001" ("Also Sprach Zarathustra") got the crowd fired up. "We're in the mood for a great big party," said the band's founder and lead piper Stuart Cassells -- the first person to be awarded a degree in bagpipes from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
Party they did, opening with three of their original tunes, bouncing across the stage to great orchestration, the bagpipes leading the way, piercing the late summer air with alacrity, while the accompanying musicians complemented the pipes beautifully.
I've done a couple of feature segments on bagpipers who have told me it takes incredible lung power to play the instrument well. This group has some major lungs, belting out fast-paced, high energy tunes in rapid succession. At one point, the three drummers played a couple of songs, ostensibly to give the pipers a chance to renew their oxygen supply.
The Chillis (they spell their name with two "ls") did perform some fun covers. You've never heard "Smoke on the Water" or "Hey Jude" done like this. And the Pipers' version of "Amazing Grace," with the full band playing in support, had to be one of the best live songs played anywhere on the grounds for the entire festival season.
"We've been very busy Chillis," Cassells said. "We've played in Saudi Arabia, Slovenia and the Ukraine, but we love the audience in Milwaukee.
"I had special T-shirts printed up for Milwaukee Irish Fest, but they won't be here until tomorrow," he said, eliciting groans from the crowd, which was well over capacity.
"But we've got a new CD coming out in October and I promise to bring it when we play here next year." The groans turned to cheers. The cool guys wearing kilts would be back in 2011.
The Red Hot Chilli Pipers will be appearing in Racine at McAuliffe's Pub this Wednesday night. This is a great opportunity to see these guys in a very intimate venue. The show starts at 8pm and is only $10.
3700 Meachem rd
Racine Wi 53405
Those pipers really rocked that stage yesterday at Irishfest! I was looking forward to hearing them since last Irishfest. Hope they come back next year. It's amazing that they have the lung capacity to keep on playing the way they do. Great article.
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