Friday, March 8, 2013

The March: The Pikeman’s (or Halting) March

Sierra Highlanders Pipe Band : The Pikeman’s March


With St. Patty’s Day just around the corner, it seems appropriate to offer something Celtic. One of my favorite Celtic groups of all time is The Boys of the Lough, and I learned to play “The Pikeman’s March” on my concertina and mandolin after listening to their second album (Rounder 3006) back in the mid-1970s.

The Boys of the Lough are purveyors of the Celtic tradition, and that album included some fine musicians - Aly Bain, Cathal McConnell, Dick Gaughan and Robin Morton. The New York Times calls the group, “one of the finest bands in Celtic traditional music.”

Today, the slow march is more often heard performed by pipe and drum bands. And whenever I hear the moving piece, it conveys an image of a group of pikemen marching and thrusting their spears at the front of their infantry battalions.

I like to hear “The Pikeman’s March” played rather slowly and with a lot of feeling. Slow Celtic tunes are just as difficult to play as fast ones. They’re often even more difficult to play them slowly because you have to present them with considerable sensitivity to the Celtic tradition and musical heritage. They also require good tone and technique. Sensitivity is a trait that musicians develop by playing with other good musicians, and it’s difficult to teach.

I was pleased by this set of tunes that The Sierra Highlanders Pipe Band have on You Tube. Here they begin with “The Pikeman’s March” before transitioning to a jig. Their sensitivity to the music is quite apparent, and it was no doubt enhanced and fine-tuned by a few pints of Guinness at the Bucket of Blood tavern in Virginia City, Nv. before they marched in the 2008 Veterans Day parade there.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The March: The Liberty Bell March

[purchase the complete Monty Python]

I presume to consider myself to be a pretty funny person, and I like to believe that other people agree with me. If not, I’ve been operating under a serious delusion for a long time. Like musical taste, a sense of humor develops over time, and like musical taste, I suspect most of us who care about such things can point to certain influences on our senses of humor. Clearly, my father, a funny guy in his own right, was an influence on me, and Saturday morning cartoons (particularly Rocky & Bullwinkle, Underdog, Bugs Bunny and The Roadrunner), were an early source of humor. Later in my life, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, the Marx Brothers, Borscht Belt one-liners, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Seinfeld have all been sources that have shaped what I think is funny. And I’m sure I’m leaving some out.

But it is hard for me to imagine how different my sense of humor would be if it were not for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The show aired on the BBC in 1969-1974. I first heard Python on a reel-to-reel tape played for me when I was 11 or 12 at summer camp in either 1972 or 1973 by one of the counselors in charge of the camp radio station (it was a very good camp, and among other things gave me my first taste of radio, something that has led, almost directly, to my writing for this blog). I didn’t know the name of the crazy Englishmen, or really understand everything that they were doing, but I knew that it was funny, and different from anything I had ever heard. In retrospect, what I heard was probably a recording of one of the troupe’s records.

It was not until 1974 that the Flying Circus came to the United States, in New York on Channel 13, the PBS station. I don’t recall whether I first heard about it from my friends, or from an article in the Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section, but I started to watch in on Sunday nights. I was hooked, and my friends and I began a life-long annoying tradition of reciting bits. This figures into the “how I met my wife” story, but that is, maybe, for another day. It took me a while before I put together the stuff I heard in camp and the TV show and realized that I had been unwittingly ahead of the curve.

My father, for some reason, never got Python, and to this day, it is a point of disagreement between us. (He also doesn’t get Letterman.) Dad was, however, good enough to take me to see “Holy Grail,” in New York City when it opened. I have to admit that even as a big fan, the 14-year old me was a little befuddled by the movie, and it took me a few years and a few re-watches before I truly appreciated its brilliance. And to this day, I still see things through the anarchic eye of the Pythons, who allowed me to understand that comedy did not have rules, and taught me about obscure British politicians and public figures of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Oh, yeah—this is a music blog. The theme song for Flying Circus is an excerpt from Sousa’s “The Liberty Bell March,” chosen apparently because it was something completely different from the spirit of the show.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The March: The March

[purchase Live at the Wetlands]

No, that isn’t a typo—The title of the song is the theme for the week. One of the most noticeable things about a Robert Randolph and the Family Band concert is the joy in the music and in the attitude of the musicians. That has to be something that is ingrained in their personalities, and must also be fed by the fact that Randolph’s band includes two of his cousins and his sister on background vocals. Now, I know that many families are dysfunctional and don’t get along, but based solely on watching them on the stage, I would like to go to a Randolph family barbecue.

Randolph’s story is interesting. A pedal-steel guitarist who learned his craft in a church in New Jersey, Randolph was discovered at a “sacred steel” convention and was asked to join John Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars in a project called “The Word,” which included gospel and original, but still gospel-sounding, music. Shortly after that album was released, Randolph and the Family Band released Live at the Wetlands, which included a version of “The March.” As you can see in the video (from a more recent performance), there is a dance associated with the song, and Randolph leaves his instrument to lead the audience in the dance.

My wife and I saw Randolph in 2003 at Roseland, with the just-breaking Los Lonely Boys as the opening act. As you can imagine, it was a great show. My son and I saw the band again at the Tarrytown Music Hall recently, and while it was a good show, it didn’t measure up to the memory of the Roseland gig. Maybe it was just an off night, or maybe my memory is playing tricks on me. Or maybe Randolph needs to be seen in a place where you can stand and dance, not sit in a seat, to be best appreciated.

Randolph often wears sports jerseys on stage, and is a New York Knicks fan. In fact, Madison Square Garden has, for a few years, featured him and the band as part of a “Friday Night Knicks” promotion, where his music is played. Unfortunately, the team has had a bad record on Fridays, and many fans think that there is a curse—which Randolph himself has apparently acknowledged (although others just blame James Dolan, the owner). But I don’t believe in those things, knock on wood.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The March: Hello I Love You

Eric Escxis via Sound Cloud: HelloI Love You
[Purchase the Doors original]
 John Densmore's drumming with the Doors never left me in awe. Not when one of my other influences at the time was Ginger Baker, drummer of Cream. Most of Densmore's Doors drumming style strikes me as "military shuffle" - lots of snare and brush that's just right for this week's theme.

There's not much in the lyrics to Hello I Love You that support my choice of the song for military march.

  Her arms are wicked and her legs are long
  When she moves my brain screams out this song

It's a very rhythmic syllabication. Yet, it's the match of the lyrics to the musical rhythm that conveys the effect of a march - and the Jim Morrison factor.

The march as a musical form was intended to have an effect on soldiers. Often, the tempo and sounds (drums, wind instruments) work to keep soldiers moving forward together, to keep them pumped up. Curious, perhaps, that the Doors were among the most vocal anti-war groups of their time. To my mind, several songs on Waiting for the Sun are military-tinged: The Unknown Soldier and Five To One.

There have been numerous covers of Hello, including a recent version from Glee. The Doors in fact ended up getting sued by Ray Davies of the Kinks for ripping off the music from All Day And All of the Night to come up with Hello I Love You. The version here is yet another free download from SoundCloud and the posting person is Eric Escxis (

After the breakup of the Doors, the remaining members have tried their hands at various solo projects. Among other projects, Densmore was the driving force behind Tribaljazz, a project which appears to be ongoing. Check it out here