Tour of the Western Lands
In November I took a month driving across the country, Asheville NC to Bellingham WA.
The piper’s job is to play the music that fits everyday life, little tunes that make the workday go faster, blurring the boundary from working to merry-making in the evening. Playing for informal dancing, the outdoor kind or the after-snack kitchen dancing that happens when friends get together and home brewed ale helps allow a little fun to slip past the guards.
I played Trinity Episcopal in Asheville first, with the organist Sharon Carleton, Highland Cathedral and Amazing Grace. At the end of the service they let me cut loose for a few minutes playing a set of jigs into the vast stone santuary.
A few days later I had finished enough work to take my customers’ instruments on the road with me to be reeded on the tour. I took those white cases into every house on the trip for fear they might get stolen. Ask me sometime how much progress I made on those instruments! Funny story…
Ros and Paul Sheperd were generous in promoting a solo house concert at their place where we had a good crowd and I played every bagpipe I had as well as the flute and sang a few songs before ending the show by sacrificing a lovely blonde Highland dancer. Okay, she turned her ankle dancing on the last number but at least the harvest will be good next year!
The day after the house concert in Houston I drove to Austin and played a wonderful free-standing gift shop which has some of the best selection of kilts, CDs, jewelry, silver, and clothing for 1000 miles. The place is called Things Celtic and they have come up with a smart-looking tartan to represent the Lone Star State. I picked up one of their kilts as soon as I saw that it had been made by one of the premier Scottish mills. A real kilt made of good wool. I played an enjoyable 3-5PM set in their back garden wearing that kilt and stuck around to jam with my harpist friend Doc before getting on the road to Big Spring.
One of the anchor gigs of the tour was the long-standing St Andrews Service at St Mary’s Episcopal in Big Spring, Tx. It was a beautiful drive from Austin and I got to meet up with fellow St Thomas Alumni Pipe Band players Richard Kean and Doug Frobese. Doug was at one time the Pipe Major of the band that would become STAPB and it was under him that the band won the Grade III Worlds in 1998. The St Mary’s service is an evening service, a concert and feast with reflections of our Scots and American heritage and some of the anthems close to the Episcopal church. As a pipe-trio accompanited by snare player Stephen Cameron, we played the STA medly from our trip to the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow last year. Our hosts Cynthia and John Marshall and Linda Hill spent days getting everything ready so that over a hundred people could hear the sound of the pipes in the beautiful St Mary’s sanctuary and eat amazing food in the courtyard afterward while we played some more. It was at Cynthia and John’s daughter’s wedding that I composed the tune in my video for this tour “Big Spring Awakening”. They have made Big Spring a special place for me in all my travels.
After Big Spring I had a few days to get to San Leandro and the Bellows By the Bay workshop and concert the next Thursday. I took the four days to drive through El Paso with a visit to the Empyre Pipe Band led by Mahrla Manning with help from Jennifer Heffner and I got to spend an evening playing tunes with some of the pipers in the area, Julia Gomez and her friends Ruby and Solomon.
Driving through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, I realized as I was trying to get video of myself playing the smallpipes in front of different things: rocks, windmills, pump jacks, trees…. that I was passing quite a few trains, and on the spur of the moment, I pulled over with a litte time to spare and set up the camera as a freight train was coming up in the distance. I managed to get one really good train with some rocks in the background, and I spent the rest of the drive in the desert trying to get positioned at just the right time and place as a train would pass by. This helped teach me one of the recurring lessons of the tour. Lesson 1: grab on to the good things while you have the chance! Dear viewer, I regret to inform you that you have been deprived of even better train/bagpiper videos due to my hestitance.
Thought for future trips….
I skated into Tucson, missing the Desert Museum just outside of town but my friend Claire and I went to some overlooks and saw an amazing sunset, getting some piper/saguaro cactus video and getting some spontaneous (slightly dangerous) desert-dancing from a group of sunset watchers on the next hill over. I learned from Claire that you can put your car into neutral and coast for miles back into Tucson if you have the courage for some of the curves and dips in the road. About midway back to Tucson, coasting too fast, windows rolled down, I realized I was enjoying this but hadn’t actually purchased or logged in to anything. Actual fun. Thank you Claire! Lesson 2: Faster!
Wednesday’s destination was just a 2 hour drive out I-10 to Phoenix, well Tempe really, to catch up with Rosie Shipley who played most of the fiddle on the WIllow album. Rosie and I had met in Nova Scotia, a maritime state about as far away from Phoenix AZ as you can get. Rosie has been creating some amazing works of art as she completes a Masters from Arizona State University. She’s going to change the world with her art and I got to meet some of her comrade artists at her apartment party where we drank gin & tonics, played music, talked about art and solved the world’s problems. Rosie is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. Her love and her unshakable faith in the people she loves is something I very much want to emulate. She’s also the most powerful fiddle player I’ve ever heard or played with and it just about knocked my soul from my body to hear her strike up those tunes.
I drove the whole 14 hours from Phoenix in one go, up I-5 through hours of farmland in California. It’s a beautiful drive and don’t let any Californians tell you otherwise. I met up with the host of the Bellows By the Bay smallpipe workshop Joyce McPherson-Newport, and her husband Jim, at their house in San Leandro where I would spend the next three days working on students’ instruments, teaching and leading pipers in becoming more effective on their instruments, playing a Saturday house concert, and generally trying to inspire the attendees to go out and contribute music to their families and community. Joyce worked tirelessly as did her husband and their friends, cooking, cleaning, organizing, so that the events ran smoothly and everyone got what they needed. I wish I could have given Joyce more time since she was one of the students but she was busy taking care of things nearly every minute. There was a lot of music and good food all around. I got to meet pipers from as far away as Oregon and got to teach some dances toward the end of the weekend as well as remind the attendees of their role as town-pipers with a job to do livening up the town square.
Pipers provide music so you don’t have to worry what to say. We are the little discovery you can hear from around the corner. Pipers keep boredom at bay.
forward, back, forward, back
together, apart, girl’s in front
together, apart, boy in front.
Bellows By the Bay was the second anchor of the tour and I’m profoundly grateful to Joyce and Jim Newport for hosting it and having me as their instructor/performer.
On Monday after Bellows by the Bay, Joyce and I went out trying to find background for more smallpipe video and we ventured out to Sausalito and up to the Golden Gate Bridge all before evening traffic. It was great to get some water to go with the desert of days before. I really tried to get some seagulls to stick around in the frame but it’s California and I guess the gulls weren’t impressed with my pitch for this picture.
From the SF Bay area I drove up to Seattle to meet the rest of my family at my brother’s house. We took a drive on Thanksgiving up to Bellingham and met my friend Merry at her house for apple pie made from fruit off her own tree. When I was up here in early October for the Celtic Arts Foundation workshop I made the aquaintance of some excellent pipers as well as guitar players and Merry plays both as well as manages a budding “food forest” of her own design in Bellingham.
After Thanksgiving I was lucky enough to be able go to a jam session at the house of another excellent guitar player, Sue Truman, who plays in a group with two pipers, Skye and Aaron, two excellent, innovative players in the region. It was great to have a real piper’s jam session where I could play just about anything in the bagpipe repertoire and be in the right place for it. Skye, who leads the Celtic Arts Foundation, has inspired the community to help build a free-standing center of Celtic Arts being developed in downtown Mount Vernon WA. It will be source of great music and a center of practical culture for decades to come.
I spent Saturday driving back to San Francisco so I could take part in the SF Dickens Fair on Sunday with a dance group called Siamsa (sham’sa). I put on the kilt and took up the Highland pipes to play for a couple of Highland dances and played my Abel whistle as part of their band for the Irish stuff. I got to see Irish Sean Nos dancing for the first time! It was beautiful and their main Sean Nos dancer it turns out, will be in Asheville this summer to teach at Swannanoa Gathering in July. Her name was Maldon Meehan and I was struck by how expressive she could be with the step dances and how beautiful the actual steps were. All the dancers with Siamsa blew me away and I loved how fluidly they all took to the stage.
The Dickens Fair has been put on by the same people who started the first-ever Renaissance Faire in 1964 and were copied all over the country. I was really impressed with the attention to detail and how serious they were about putting the audience in a different place.
That night I went home with a couple of the Bellows By the Bay workshop attendees, two smallpipe and Highland pipe players named Donna and John Willy. John brews his own ale so naturally some friends came over. The conversation, the ale, and the tunes were flowing and and Donna got everybody dancing in the living room.
Monday had me driving home, back to Texas and a gig on Friday with Clandestine, the third and final leg of the trip. I stopped in Arizona on the way as well as caught an old friend at her spiritual retreat in Texas at a wilderness area called the Hueco Tanks. Bibeth Fuller is a friend of Clandestine going back more than a decade when she used to meet us at the Highland Games’ all over and dance during some of our instrumentals. I thought these Hueco Tanks were some kind of petroleum storage outpost that had rock-climbing ropes attached to them but no, they are geologically unique giant rock formations that catch water in the vast desert and are home to some rare wildlife. I spent the night in the car after meeting Bibeth in the middle of nowhere and being led deeper into the desert in the light of the risen full moon. Some climbing guides, friends of Bibeth had a bonfire going and we stayed up late talking and passing around a bottle of nice single malt. In the middle of the night after going to bed, I woke up claustrophibic in the car and had to get out, a little panicked. I put on shoes and my coat and stepped out into the now blazing full moon light. It felt like a kind of day and the desert was so quiet now I thought I could almost hear the moon light storming down with a little chorus of bright stars I don’t usually see. The big dipper and the constellation Leo were bright in the sky, and now I began to have the opposite problem of feeling too exposed. I didn’t have anywhere else to sleep so I had to get used to the idea of going back to the car. I walked around and listened to the absolute silence for a while with the star and moon light fully illuminating the desert casting deep, clear black shadows of my profile on the soft fine dust of the ground.
The next day Bibeth got me cleared to go into the park. I had to register and watch a video about how delicate the place was. It turns out you’ve got to be careful where you step because there are water creatures’ buried eggs in some places on the ground. We went to one area and I took some video next to an Octatillo, a Prickly Pear, a Yucca, a Creosote bush and some hugely impressive rock formations. It was all just chance or serendiptiy that Bibeth had called and I just happened to be in the area passing through, 700 miles from where we normally run into each other.
I made my way back to Houston and played a fun show with Clandestine at our home club, McGonigels Mucky Duck, where I’ll be spending St Patricks Day next year.
Saturday I helped my friend Leisa set up her booth at a local art faire where she sold silver/fiber jewelry all day. Leisa does all the graphic design for me, and most of my groups including Brizeus and Clandestine as well as most of the Houston Celtic musicians I know. Leisa and I saw our ultimate rock show Jonathan Coulton that Saturday night and got ready to hit our very own Dickens fair in Galveston the next day.
Sunday at Dickens on the Strand,where I went busking for the first time 25 years ago, on a dare from my grandmother, showed the usual Texas winter weather of 80 degrees and sunny. I called my friend Dean Atkinson who plays snare in St Thomas Alumni and he grabbed the blue Tupan and we knocked some dust off our fingers all day piping and drumming with the sound echoing off the old buildings. I saw lots of old friends dressed in their Victorian and Steampunk best while we busked and tore up some tunes. I got to wear my new Lone Star Tartan kilt on a beautiful day in the Lone Star State and it was a wonderfully satisfying way to finish up an epic tour.