Kevin T. Baldwin
The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts
"THE RED HOT CHILLI PIPERS"
The Hanover Theatre presents the most famous bagpipe band in the world,
The Red Hot Chilli Pipers
Presented at the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, 2 Southbridge St., Worcester.
METRMAG Spotlight On: Willie Armstrong and "The Red Hot Chilli Pipers" - Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts (Worcester, MA.)
The Red Hot Chilli Pipers will grace the stage at The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts in Worcester, Massachusetts on Saturday, March 12, 2022 at 8:00 pm.
The band has been in constant demand at music festivals and music events all over the world ever since winning the TV talent show “When Will I Be Famous?” back in 2007.
However, they were not an overnight sensation, as one of the band's founders, Willie Armstrong, recalls how the group formed and their early days.
"We were all professional pipers to start with," Armstrong explains. "We would play at weddings, funerals and corporate events in our own right. We had performed at a few events together with two drummers initially and didn’t earn any money. It was refreshing, though, as we concentrated on our sound and we were together as a bunch of mates so it was nice to have someone to talk to."
Now this year both the band and audiences will enjoy celebrating the The Red Hot Chilli Pipers 20th Anniversary.
"Yes, seems like yesterday it all started," says Armstrong, who remembers those early days quite fondly.
"One of us would drive and the rest would chip in for petrol. We would have a couple of pints and generally have a good time."
And the first time the band actually got paid?
"It was a wedding event in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh," Armstrong recalls. "We done well and the groom asked us if we would come back to welcome the evening guests. We agreed, although now we had about four hours to kill in Edinburgh. This is the strange bit of the story. All the ATM machines were out and the pubs couldn’t get their payment machines to work, a big computer malfunction."
So what did they do? They rolled with it, of course.
"We decided we’d play for our supper - so we got the pipes out and started to entertain the people in the pubs in the Grassmarket," Armstrong says. "There’s three pubs in a row and by the time we got to the last pub, we had an almighty audience and it was at that point that I thought perhaps we had something."
Since the Scottish band formed in 2002, The Red Hot Chilli Pipers have been no strangers to experimenting with their music.
Being innovators of a unique sound, the group has proudly coined the term “bagrock” to define their unprecedented use of guitars, drums, keyboards and bagpipes.
Armstrong, himself, was originally a fireman and Royal Navy veteran from Glasgow and notes the vast difference between those two worlds.
"Being a fireman for all those years I pretty much dealt with people who were having the worst day of their lives so far. Being a musician, I deal with people who are on a joyous night out," Armstrong explains. "I always struggled with the juxtaposition that that creates, but I feel it keeps my feet on the ground."
So what first drew him to the bagpipe as his preferred form of musical expression?
"A lot of my family were musicians when I was growing up. We were incredibly patriotic too. So I remember the day I picked up a set of bagpipes and it was magical," Armstrong recollects.
Armstrong notes how the musicians wanted to "play gigs with our mates and avoid or limit solo performances."
"Bear in mind, at this point, we had no clue or plan even about how big it was going to get," Armstrong says. "We were genuinely just mates getting together and making music. We had a lot of contacts in the corporate booking world due to our previous work and we learned very quickly about what worked and what didn’t."
He says the band soon learned it was not only important to play well but also to be able to "read the room."
"At corporate events, you have to up your game. You have to realize the audience at these events hasn’t ‘bought’ into your performance, they haven’t bought a ticket to see your band, you could argue that you might be forcing the bagpipe sound down their throat," Armstrong says. "That taught us the most important lesson you’ll ever learn - You don’t play what YOU like, you play what the audience likes."
Within their years of success, the group has performed at The 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasglow and The 2015 Rugby World Cup, in addition to being featured on the soundtrack for How To Train Your Dragon 2.
In the past 15 years, the Chillis have gained over 350,000 Facebook followers and 3.5 million views on YouTube, been awarded the UK Gold disk and three triple-platinum disks for album sales and performed at private parties for Ewan McGregor, Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Alex Ferguson, Her Majesty the Queen and more.
The band name “The Red Hot Chilli Pipers” actually came as a result of a CD mislabeling accident.
"Yes it’s true," Armstrong says, noting how band mate Stuart (Cassells) had got his girlfriend ("Gill") at the time to "tidy up his CD pile."
"Genre order, one pile for Rock and one pile for Trad (Traditional), etc."
Apparently, according to Armstrong, Gill had placed a "Red Hot Chili Peppers" CD onto the "Traditional" pile and when Stuart asked why she had done that, she noted how she misread as "The Red Hot Chilli Pipers."
"We kept it as we thought it was funny," Armstrong says. "Scots are fans of 'tongue in cheek' self depreciating humor and that ticked a lot of boxes for us. At the time we had no idea that we’d be touring the world with this band and yes, with the benefit of hindsight, which is an exact science, we would probably have went with another name. We have to be very careful with our marketing now and always make sure there are bagpipe players on all promotional material."
According to the group's press release, the band "features an array of the very best musicians from Scotland and across the globe, many holding world champion titles and all serious players with impressive credentials and qualifications."
This will be the groups third outing at the The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts, according to Armstrong, who refers to the venue as a "great theatre with a great knowledgeable audience."
The 2020 lockdown was harsh for every artist and group. So, what did the Pipers do during the prolonged downtime? Armstrong confesses, "Not a lot, is the answer."
"At the start, we had naively planned get togethers and nights out at the pubs. As time went on, though, we realized that it wasn’t going to be over in a few weeks, or even months," Armstrong says.
What was it like when they first were able to regroup and play together again?
"Yeh, that was pretty amazing," Armstrong says. "It’s a human emotion thing. You don’t realize what you have until it’s gone. A lot of us were wondering if it would ever come back, so there was a wee sense of relief. It was lovely to be back in the room with my mates making music. Bagpipes were the last to come back as you’re basically blowing the contents of your lungs into a sheepskin bag, so I can imagine that’s maybe not the best scenario regarding virus transmission."
Being "ex fire brigade," Armstrong also affirms being drawn to what he (and the Pipers) have done for charities.
"It’s been very rewarding raising money for the various people in need over the years, "Armstrong says. "I always take the view that, one day, it might be me that’s needing help."
The Chillis have never been more in demand for their infectious style of feel-good music, which appeals right across the age range to people all over the world.
The set list that makes up this 90-minute musical production is an eclectic blend which requires "a good deal of thought and preparation," according to Armstrong.
"There’s basically nowhere to hide. Almost everyone on stage has a music degree and are top grade Scottish musicians. You have to avoid karaoke as everyone would see through that; musicians and audience," Armstrong says. "We need to remain true to the tradition but also take into consideration the needs and wants of a wider audience. So there are rock and pop covers, but mostly they’ll be segued with the traditional bagpipe tunes. We also have an amazing vocalist who takes the lead melody part obviously, but also this gives us a chance to cleanse the ears of the audience. That’s the real trick here, read the room and act on audience feedback, change is a good thing and keeps everyone creative."
Armstrong has his own personal favorite number from this latest tour - the opener.
"We spent a lot of time on that," Armstrong says. "Lots of interest and dynamics going on. Nice lights too."
When the tour ends, what is Armstrong's next challenge?
"Because of my previous occupation, I have some issues with my knees. Cold weather (Scottish weather) doesn’t really help," Armstrong says. "I’m currently building a house on the South Coast of England. It’s a wee bit warmer there and I’m not too far away to fly back to Scotland to see my beloved Celtic soccer team and my mates."
Armstrong confesses he doesn't know how much longer he will stay in the band, but also declares, "it’s a hard thing to leave behind and certainly not something I can readily recreate doing something else."
Kevin T. Baldwin is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA)
Tickets for The Red Hot Chilli Pipers are on sale now!
Ticket prices are $29 and $39 depending on seat location. Please contact the box office at 877.571.SHOW (7469) or visit TheHanoverTheatre.org for more information.
Please note, for the comfort and safety of all of our patrons, staff, volunteers and performers/artists, we respectfully require proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative result for a COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of your visit to the theatre. Children under 12 are exempt, provided they are accompanied by an adult who is fully vaccinated. Information will be checked against a valid photo ID prior to entry and the wearing of masks is required while inside the theatre.
Complete details can be found here: https://thehanovertheatre.org/safetyprotocols