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A Night at Birnam and A Hoolie And A Half!

By 18th March 2015

One of the very best parts of running an online magazine is that you are invited out to events that you might not normally book yourself.  This is what happened to me on Sunday night as I headed to Birnam Arts Centre for a concert showcasing the talents of The Gordon Duncan Experience.  I have to admit, I glossed over a couple of facts in order to convince RG to give up beers after the Rugby and come with me. For instance, I didn’t tell him this was a youth band made up of teenagers rather than professional musicians. And I said “Big Band Celtic, kinda Red Pine-ish…” rather than traditional Scottish. 

Why? Because when we think of young teenagers playing Scottish music we think of squealing pipes and screeching fiddles. And going along to watch this, is only really fun when you know someone on the stage because this allows your pride and love to override your ability to hear honestly.  However, I was to be proved wrong on both counts!

Gordon Duncan Experience PerthThe Gordon Duncan Experience is a Celtic big band for kids aged 13 – 18; they meet twelve times a year and rehearse for six hours at a time. Entrance is by audition and although you can try out with anything from a saxophone to a squeeze box, you must be able to play at level six. (For the non-musical fraternity among you, that’s the level at which they become impressive!)

Unlike other trad bands The Gordon Duncan Experience might have its roots in Traditional Scottish Music but it aims to introduce the musicians involved to other influences and different genres. There is a distinct flavour of jazz and our encored was the epic Thunderstruck from AC/DC! They learn to play by ear and to arrange music, and you can see and hear this level of understanding shining through in their performance.

The crowd was made up by and large of mums, dads and grandparents, all there to cheer on their budding musician. This alerted RG to my ‘glossing’ and I have to admit, it made me a bit nervous. What if they were rubbish? How would I do the review?  We were ushered into the hall and made a beeline for a couple of rows near the front laid out in cabaret jazz club style with little round tables - nice touch! Although there were no waitresses in feathers and it was coffee rather than gin!

The kids filed haphazardly onto stage with much clapping and cheering and the first thing that struck me was the casual dress and laid back atmosphere. They were all in group t-shirts and these were teamed with an array of jeans, tartan leggings, denim skirts, trainers and one rather cool trilby. It felt individual; it felt real and much more authentic for a group of teenagers than the usual stiffness of black trousers, white shirts and group ties. There’s just something smile-inducing and extra-enjoyable about watching a boy in a t-shirt and kilt play a saxophone while he stands between a piper and an accordion player.

There was, as you’d imagine, a lot of Gordon Duncan’s music showcased. Various arrangements of the work of the innovative Perthshire Piper sounded out from the stage, starting with a skirl of the pipes and leading straight into ‘The Gladiator’.   

Gordon Duncan FACE

And they were good. Really, really good!  Because, of course, as much they may only be sixteen/seventeen/ eighteen, they are also extremely talented musicians so what you get is a truly authentic Celtic Big Band experience. The cherry on top is that they have all that wild, carefree inhibition of youth and over the top passion that comes from an undiluted love of music. The stage was alive with an energy that is often lost in structured orchestras. The brass section particularly, were pulling off synchronised dance moves inbetween blasting out pitch perfect notes on their trumpets and the aforementioned saxophone.

They were piled onto that wee stage at the Birnam; not a spare inch was to be had as double bass lined up with piano, drums, fiddles, cellos, trumpets, accordions, saxophone, guitar and pipes.  Dave Milligan, the group leader, cut quite the acrobatic figure, teetering along the edge of the stage to conduct them through their show.  And you know, this all just added to the atmosphere, a symbol for the talent and passion that was packed into almost two hours of breath-taking musical entertainment.

There were little breakout groups who’d arranged their own music and created new and exciting ways of looking things; because that’s what unlimited imaginations can do. The Brass and Accordion section – named Hornbox, what did the grannies say? - started us off with a bang!  We then had pianos and fiddles raising the roof in a series of tunes that ‘Steven introduced us to’ and a young lady called Megan who took front and centre with an acoustic guitar, a fiddler pal and a beautiful voice for the only song of the evening. We also heard from the GDE Training Group, younger musicians hoping to join the Big Band at some point soon.

But it was the jigs that kicked off the second half that had me wishing the sea of chairs and bobbing heads would part to make way for a dancefloor big enough to have a proper hoolie. That wonderful rush of adrenalin that great fiddles bring was made all the better for the accompaniment of a double bass and dancing brass section.  The trilby hat had left its owners head and was popping up all over the stage to grace the locks of these smiling, joyous musicians. The whole damn thing was nothing short of brilliant and as the jigs rolled into reels the toe tapping and knee-slapping became infectious!  

A full one hour set in the second half was encored with AC/DC's Thunderstruck and there were high fives all round as the bows took place and the crowd showed their appreciation with a seismic clap.

When I started out on this Small City journey, this is exactly the type of thing I hoped I’d discover. Here is a fantastic opportunity for young people to get together, create something brilliant and learn new skills, all while enjoying themselves and entertaining us. I know you might be of the same opinion I was to begin with, but please, please do yourself a favour and if you see The Gordon Duncan Experience advertised book a ticket, pull on your dancing shoes and get ready for a night unlike any other.

PS... RG agreed wholeheartedly! He looked at me at the end of the first half and said “That was bloody brilliant! Did you see the boy in the kilt with a sax?”


HORSECROSS LOGOIf you or your child would like to find out more about Horsecross Creative Learning courses, including The Gordon Duncan Experience, then click over to their website JOIN IN section here.


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