There’s something spicy on the menu at this year’s Dublin Irish Festival.
Scottish “bagrock” group the Red Hot Chilli Pipers will be shaking the stage Aug. 2 with its unique bagpipe covers of popular rock anthems.
Though the group has been around since 2002 under its current name, it exploded in popularity after winning the BBC television competition When Will I Be Famous? in 2007. Its covers of such songs as Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and Coldplay’s “Clocks” have helped make the group famous. The Pipers are also known for “Chillifying” – adding a rock element – to more traditional Celtic tunes.
The heart of the group goes back farther than its 2002 naming. Piper Kevin MacDonald and two friends set up their business Scottish Bagpipers in 1999, offering themselves as a trio available for weddings, funerals and corporate events.
“After your dessert course, there are either singing waiters, a singer or speakers, and that’s where the band came in,” MacDonald says, describing his early, not-so-glamorous days of trying to make ends meet as an accountant just out of university.
As for the group’s evolution from a traditional bagpipe group to an unconventional rock band, it’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg question. Did the sound come first and
inspire the name, or did the name inspire the sound?
“It was an accident,” MacDonald says of the group’s name. “One of the guy’s girlfriends was tidying up his flat and she put a Red Hot Chili Peppers CD in with his bagpipe music.”
When he asked her why it was there, the girlfriend responded, “I thought it said ‘Red Hot Chili Pipers,’” MacDonald recounts.
“And the name was born,” he says. “The concept was already born, it was just that we didn’t have a catchy name to go with it.”
The term “bagrock” was invented by the Pipers to describe their sound – adding bagpipes to rock songs, or, conversely, adding rock to classic bagpipe tunes.
Then there’s the stage element. A Chilli Pipers performance is an intense affair, complete with lighting and choreography. MacDonald and the other musicians put an enormous amount of energy into their shows, feeding off each other and the crowd and playing so hard sweat rolls off their brows.
“It’s the best form of weight loss other than doing a spinning class,” MacDonald jokes.
The pipers and their entourage – now a giant contingent of musicians, sound crew members and lighting technicians – are frequently hailed as rock stars at the larger concerts and festivals the band plays.
Of the original five Chilli Pipers members, only two remain – MacDonald and fellow piper Willie Armstrong – but only MacDonald will be present for the U.S. tour. MacDonald will keep playing with the group for as long as he can, he says.
“It’s an amazing feeling being on stage,” he says, adding that everyone has different passions in life. “Mine is just to be a performer on stage.”
But becoming a professional musician was something MacDonald never dreamed of as a boy.
“I started as a 7-year-old boy in a local boy’s pipe brigade band,” MacDonald says. “There was never any expectation of it.”
The Red Hot Chilli Pipers picked up steam, starting with one or two events a year, then one or two a month. Now, they’re performing around 200 concerts a year.
“It’s just grown and grown,” MacDonald says. “To be fair, I don’t think anybody could have predicted it. … Fortunately for us, the doors seemed to be open at the right times and in the right places. If somebody had said, ‘You’ll be touring and doing rock performances in America when you’re 35,’ I’d have said, ‘Stop taking those drugs right now.’ It’s one of those amazing situations that we find ourselves in.”
MacDonald is thankful for the support of his wife and three children – ages 7, 6 and 4 – as he’s on the road much of the year. This year he’ll leave his home in central Scotland in late July and won’t return until the end of November.
“It’s not an easy thing … but that’s just the nature of the beast,” MacDonald says. “My oldest one … thinks it’s the coolest thing ever. My daughter, who is 6, hates it. It’s not High School Musical enough for her.”
The Dublin Irish Festival, Aug. 2-4, marks the start of a five-week U.S. tour for the group, as well as the first official performance of the Pipers’ new album, Breathe, which launches Aug. 1. The album includes covers of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” as well as the traditional tune “Silver Spear.”
Though MacDonald’s daughter might not be the group’s biggest fan, a Chilli Pipers show generally has something for all ages to enjoy – from ages 8 to 80, MacDonald says – from parents who remember the rock originals to children or grandparents who enjoy just clapping or dancing to the music.
“It’s just fun,” he says. “It really is a family show that has good, fun dancing. … We seem to have hit the right note.”
Lisa Aurand is a contributing editor. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.