I’ll be the first to admit: when I initially saw UpstateShows’ listing for February 7’s Red Hot Chilli Pipers show in Syracuse, I immediately assumed that the bagpipe band’s tube sock-sporting namesake was making an appearance in Central New York. I texted 17 of my closest friends to let them know before I realized my erroneous misread. But it didn’t really matter; I had seen the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Bonnaroo in 2012. And maybe it was the hippies tripping on bad acid next to me in the 80,000-person crowd or maybe it was the weirdly frigid Tennessee weather in June, but the band was pretty awful. I figured I owed it to myself to see a band with a similar name.
Late on Friday I ventured over to Eastwood’s Palace Theater—if you haven’t gone yet, you really should consider it, given the number of movie screenings hosted there—and joined a couple hundred people, many of whom dressed in kilts and guzzled pints of Guinness like water, for what I can only describe as the strangest end to the strangest week of my life. Let me expound.
After watching what I can only assume was a 20-piece Syracuse-area bagpipers interest group warm up the stage, local five-piece act Hobo Graffiti took over as the opening act. Sort of like a rockabilly-Evanescence-meets-The White Stripes-meets-Blues Traveler, the band provided the evening’s dose of heavy rock and roll. Hobo Graffiti’s lead female vocalist, Heather Jones, was by far the star of the ensemble; her throaty, deep vocals on the band’s original songs, including “Doctor,” captivated the growing crowd.
After a brief intermission, the kilt-wearing Pipers took the stage. The Scottish nine-piece ensemble—which formed in 2002, and then entered and won the BBC talent show When Will I Be Famous?—included two drummers, a keyboardist, a bass guitar player, an electric guitarist, and several bagpipers. From the minute they started in on heir first song, an original from their new album Breathe, the audience was enraptured; fifty-year-old women clamored to the stage to try to touch the (mostly young and mostly handsome) bagpipers, men chugged beer, and there was a never-ending soundtrack of woops and whistles from the audience for the duration of the set.
The Red Hot Chilli Pipers are not without accolades; the group’s snare drummer, Steven Graham, is a seven-time world champion snare drummer. One bagpiper was featured on the original soundtrack of the animated Disney movie Brave. Three members graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
Don’t let the name fool you. The band doesn’t really do Red Hot Chili Peppers songs. Instead, frontman and bagpiper Willie Armstrong explains that the band plays a genre of music called “bag-rock,” combining Scottish melodies with pop song riffs. I prefer the term “Scottish fusion.” Wikipedia lists the band as “Celtic rock.” But whatever, same difference. Interspersed with the band’s original melodies were covers of songs like Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” and Coldplay’s “Fix You.”
The design of the Palace Theater allows for about fifteen feet of space between the stage and the first row of seats. At some point in the evening, a strange phenomenon occurred, and about half a dozen moms charged the stage, creating an effect that I can only describe as a “bagpipe moshpit.” One very enthusiastic woman decided to show off her Irish step dancing skills, no doubt cultivated thirty-plus years ago, while other women made thinly veiled efforts to paw at the bagpipers or catch a glimpse under those kilts. This, I decided, was the primary demographic of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. And at least in Syracuse, the group definitely had an audience.
I learned something on Friday night. Mostly that bagpipes are the most annoying instrument you could ever willfully listen to for more than two hours in a row, but also that the Pipers are special because they really don’t give a fuck about what you think of their music; they’re coming out on stage with bagpipes and kilts, and they’re going to rock your face off with the music of their people, and they’re probably going to steal your girl while they’re at it. Is there anything more punk than that?
During a break in the performance, I texted my boyfriend to update him on the show, and he fired back this reply, which, I think, perfectly captures the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, and in a way, Syracuse.
“And they say nothing is happening in Syracuse and I say in response to that: bullshit. Moms are moshing in a movie theater that is also a music venue to a bagpipe RHCP cover band. Clearly, Syracuse is an absurdist’s paradise. Also, the movie theater serves alcohol. So suck it, haters.”
Suck it haters, indeed.
Photo by Nina Mullin