Okay, first thing’s first: Though similar in name, the Red Hot Chilli Pipers are not a kilted homage to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
They don’t have a shirtless, histrionic bassist like Flea, a drummer who resembles comedic actor Will Ferrell, or original songs about the city they live in (or the City of Angels).
But while the like-monikered Chili Peppers disappointingly mimed their particular brand of insanity during last Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show, the Chilli Pipers plied their authentic article of plaid, multi-instrumental lunacy live – and plugged in – through a thoroughly entertaining Saturday night double-set inside Buffalo’s Kleinhans Music Hall.
For some of Scottish or Irish descent, the sound of bagpipes is nothing less than an emotional release attached to ancestral roots. To others, it’s a repetitious, jarring squeal to be tolerated during festivals, police graduations and ambitious wedding processions.
Since forming in Scotland in 2002, the nine-piece Chillis have tried to bring these two sides together, staying true to their ethnic musicality while merging tradition with the unhinged bombast of contemporary rock anthems.
Their “Amazing Grace” seamlessly coexists with tracks from “Jock Jams,” albeit with more sporrans and less Baha Men.
This “bagrock” formula earned the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama-educated band top prize and international fame on the U.K. television talent show “When Will I Be Famous?” in 2007.
Such acknowledgement gave them the momentum and multi-platinum selling power to not only delight worldwide music audiences who demand more pipes with their pop, but also those who have never considered how tunes from Coldplay, War or The Who could be enhanced by a wailing fleet of aerophones.
Touring on their fifth album, “Breathe,” the Chillis’ entrance and opener primed the Nickel City crowd for what would be an unending stream of traditional instrumentals intermingling with reinvented hits. After the band’s ensemble cycled through a rousing introduction, they executed what’s most likely the first-ever Celtic transition into a ZZ Top song – a rousing version of “Give Me All Your Loving.”
The band’s trio of bagpipers – Gordon McCance, Craig Munroe and Willie Armstrong – allowed for such dalliances into rock and pop fare to sound so surprising. But without bridges provided by guitarist Ben “The Iceman” Holloway, keyboardist Gary O’Hagen and bassist Alan “The Animal” McGeoch,” some of the night’s reinterpretations wouldn’t have had the same effect.
Holloway’s fretwork eased the crowd into the Chillis’ mash-up of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”
O’Hagan’s backing keys gave support to stunning and multi-textured versions of Coldplay’s “Clocks” and “Fix You.”
McGeoch’s steady bass line somehow made a bagpipe-led version of War’s “Low Rider” make some semblance of sense. And on the first set’s finishing version of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” the trio carried their weight to allow Munroe to replicate Roger Daltrey’s vocals with bagpipe notes for one of the night’s highlights.
But on a frozen Allentown night begging for Celtic charge, all instruments were shadowed co-stars to the Chillis’ pulsating pipes. Without their inclusion, a Scottish six-piece covering the Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” would’ve garnered a yawn and an exit. A bagpipe-less ensemble in Highland attire doing choreographed Motown moves to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” would’ve been better suited for a strip mall tavern.
With the bagpipes’ starring role at the forefront of the Kleinhans stage? Call it an inventive and entertaining evening even the Red Hot Chili Peppers would envy.