CRAZY CELTIC COOL
The Wicked Tinkers bring ancient feeling to the modern world
By MICK FARREN
The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson first brought L.A. group the Wicked Tinkers to my attention late last month. Ferguson’s father had died, and – instead of going to a rerun – he decided, in one of the most courageous pieces of television I have seen in years, to hold an on-air wake. His monologue/eulogy was moving, and then Dr. Drew Pinsky talked about the process of grieving. This turned things a tad Oprah, and thus, when Ferguson brought on four wild heavyweights in kilts and tank tops, I was superbly ready for them.
During his build-up for the Wicked Tinkers, Ferguson talked about giving his father a tribal sendoff, but just how tribal was only revealed when the Tinkers appeared, beating the living hell out of tapan, bodhran, and marching snare drum, while pipes skirled, a didgeridoo wobbled, and a Bronze Age Irish horn bellowed, like the voice of some H.P. Lovecraft aquatic leviathan.
Craig Ferguson is inordinately proud of his Scottish heritage, drawing on it constantly for his nightly TV stand-up. The only problem is that Scottish heritage has rather become a choice of the sedate – Queen Victoria and Miss Jean Brodie in her prime – or the out-and-out mental illness of Trainspotting. Resembling heavy-metal roadies, or maybe 18th-century Highland cattle thieves, the Tinkers did a whole lot to redress the balance. As they laid into their wholly authentic instruments with a good-natured fury – and a noticeable undertow of Bo Diddley that caused critic Dean Bonzani to liken them to a Celtic Clash – they could not be dismissed as a single-malt goof. Piper and cofounder Aaron Shaw is a master of one of the hardest, weirdest instruments on Earth, and when the powerhouse percussion comes into play, he rides the rhythm like the wild surf.
The Wicked Tinkers was a happy accident of the mid-1990s that occurred at the Monday-night seisiuns in the Celtic Arts Center of Southern California. (They still continue today: 4843 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Studio City, at 9 p.m.; 818-760-8322 or Celticartscenter.com.) There, Shaw and percussionist Warren Casey discovered what Shaw describes as a “combination that could tap the very soul of Gaelic music.” This soul-tapping continued with permit busking on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, where Shaw, Casey, and the other original percussionist, John MacAdams, would play until they gathered enough in the hat for another round and then hie themselves to the pub. After Third Street, Shaw and Casey decided to attempt making a living from their music – “It’s still hard,” says Casey – but MacAdams’s family commitment forced him to give up his Wickedness (although he still has his own band, Craicmore). These days, Keith Jones fills the second-percussionist chair.
A considerable part of that living is currently earned on the American Highland Games circuit. Who knew America had a Highland Games circuit? But no less than 15 seriously well-attended games happen on the Pacific Coast alone – where athletes, singers, dancers, and musicians come together to celebrate Scottish tradition. The use of prehistoric and aboriginal horns, plus the WT’s high, punk-primal energy, do tend to make diehard traditionalists blanch, but I agree with Shaw when he says it’s a “way to express the feeling of the ancient in the modern world.” WT have been through a number of horn players down its decade of existence, but have now fixed on Jay Atwood, who appeared on The Late Late Show.
The bad news is that – although they’ve opened for the Young Dubliners and ought to be opening for the Pogues – the Wicked Tinkers won’t be playing a joint near you any time soon. Their closest next event is a show this Friday in Santa Fe Springs, and after that it’s the Pomona Highland Games on Memorial Day weekend (May 27-28). But you can always look for updates – not to mention find their CDs and see their Late Late Show performance – at Wickedtinkers.com.
Green Man Review
The Wicked Tinkers, Portland Scottish Highland Games, Mt. Hood Community College, Gresham, Oregon, USA, July 19, 2003.
Hot sun, cold beer, bagpipes, drums, didgeridoos, and four wildly funny, talented, sexy men in kilts...OK, maybe that's not your idea of Heaven, but I've seen the Wicked Tinkers so I know better.
The Tinkers are: award-winning piper and frontman Aaron Shaw; the delightfully insane Keith Jones on percussion (and "hollerin'"); wild man Warren Casey, also on percussion; and the certifiable Wayne Belger on didgeridoo and, again, percussion. Bagpipe and bodhran, snare drum and djembe, didgeridoo and the amazing Bronze Age Celtic horn: if you haven't figured out by now that the Tinkers are loud...well, we'll just say that you may not be the sharpest dart in the board.
The Wicked Tinkers perform at Celtic festivals, Highland Games, and Renaissance Faires up and down the West Coast. I caught their act at the Portland Scottish Highland Games. Throughout the day they played several sets lasting about 45 minutes each; I had planned to see their 1:30 show only. When it ended, I asked my husband if we could go back for the 3:30 set, and I didn't have to ask twice. These guys can jam.
Both sets consisted of old favorites -- unlike myself, most of the spectators were obviously familiar with the Tinkers' work -- and some pieces from their newest album Banger for Breakfast. The first show opened with some rollicking "jigs about birds" -- "The Hen's March/The Seagull/The Geese in the Bog" -- followed by "Pumpkin's Fancy," at which point Keith Jones (did I mention he's insane?) left the stage with his snare drum and marched about through the audience, ending up at one point inside the gym in the line for the ladies room. Eventually he wandered back across the field to the stage, and Aaron introduced the "Mackenzie Battle Charge," warning us that it could incite trouble if there were any Mackenzies in the audience: he didn't warn us that the entire band was going to march off the stage and circulate through the audience!
Surprises like this went on throughout both sets. Local radio hamsteak Dave Scott joined the band onstage toward the end of the first set for "Flower of Scotland/The Black Bear Hornpipe" and held his own on the drum surprisingly well. During the final song of the first set ("Radar Love," and no I am not kidding you) a tiny blonde tyke called Lauren rushed the stage and danced her little heart out -- the Tinkers played what might be called "the extended version" and by gum that little girl kept up with them for so long that fans were placing bets on who would drop first!
During the second show we were treated to the amazing Bog Set featuring a gigantic didgeridoo made in Oregon and the haunting Celtic horn, the pleasant "Fiollaigean" and the exciting "Hammer on the Anvil." Even better, there were more impromptu fan performances, including a hornpipe danced by the "Wicked Tinker-belles" -- the Belles, a trio of lovely teenage girls named Erin, Mary, and Mary, were apparently competitors on the Highland dance stages who donned Tinkers t-shirts and joined in the fun. The divinely mad Warren Casey engaged in a full-scale broadsword battle with some little boys (plastic souvenir swords against drumsticks) off and on throughout the set, rarely missing a beat. Oh, and I learned that bodhrans make handy beer trays when Wayne ran off the stage mid-set and returned with a round of MacTarnahan's for the boys. The second set ended with more jigs but not before a short set of what Aaron claimed were "songs that should never be played on bagpipes," including "Stairway to Heaven" and "If You Think I'm Sexy."
The Wicked Tinkers are crazy in the way that only very, very good performers can be, with a nuttiness that is enticing rather than intimidating. Consummate performers, they work together like the proverbial well-oiled machine, albeit one oiled with mutton grease and lubricated with plenty of ale. All four are, as I said previously, rock-star sexy -- though they just ruin the fantasy when they mention that three of the four are married and two are new fathers or fathers-to-be! Be still my heart.
Admittance to the Highland Games is ten dollars, with the performances included in the price. I've paid five times as much for tickets to see bands ten times as famous in venues twenty times as large, and not had half as much fun. If you ever get the chance to catch the Tinkers onstage, don't pass it up. It goes without saying that you'll want to pick up a full set of their CDs.
Wicked Tinkers, Banger for Breakfast (Thistle Pricks Productions, 2003)
Recently I attended a Wicked Tinkers show at the Portland Scottish Highland Games. As I said in my review of the show, "The Wicked Tinkers are crazy in the way that only very, very good performers can be, with a nuttiness that is enticing rather than intimidating." Banger for Breakfast, subtitled Live & Raw, is their most recent CD -- and it admirably demonstrates my point.
The liner notes explain "[Banger] originally started out with 60 hours of music recorded live across the country. We whittled it down to a couple hours of our greatest hits. This first of two CDs is a bunch of favorites snatched from our three previous releases, with ten new tunes thrown in to boot." In fact, all of the Tinkers' previous albums have been reviewed by GMR. Of Wicked Tinkers, Editor-in-Chief Cat Eldridge said "Wicked Tinkers is one of the best albums I've ever heard -- And after hearing literally thousands of Celtic CDs in the past twenty years, I'm more than a bit jaded. From the opening set of jigs titled "The Bird Set" ("The Hen's March/The Seagull/The Geese in the Bog") to the "Wallop The Cat" jig ("We do not advocate cruelty to cats, hares or any other creatures, for that matter. In fact, we hope this tune is about a cat named Wallop...") with its gratuitous silly sound effects to the closing jig/hornpipe combo of "The Man From Skye/The Judge's Dilemma," this is a damn near perfect album." Of Loud, reviewer Peter Massey enthused "You might say the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and I found myself reaching for my Claymore, just to kill off a few more sassenachs. For make no mistake about it, this is real Sterling music!" And of course they're both right -- the Wicked Tinkers are my new favorite band, and Banger for Breakfast has been played dozens of times since we picked it up at the Games last month.
As mentioned, this CD is made up of live recordings, and they didn't just include music. Bits of their hilarious stage patter are interspersed with the tunes -- all of this comes across well except the comparison of Wayne's hair to Aaron's sporran, which really needs the visual for full impact.
The recording is really well done for what must have been almost entirely outdoor, open air shows. Wayne Belger's didgeridoo on "Those Marching O'Neill's" from Hammered rumbles through the speakers like doom...you'll want to turn up your base when you listen to the Tinkers as their music is an incredibly visceral experience. Warren Casey and Keith Jones add to the windy cliffs and smoky mead hall feeling with energetic drumming, and Aaron Shaw is, frankly, the best piper I've ever heard, at least in the context of a band. His rendition of "Danny Boy" is plaintive, but arranged at just the right tempo to avoid becoming maudlin. "Atholl Highlanders" has not appeared on their previous CDs, and Aaron leads the tune with a frenetic but never rushed piece of perfect piping.
A particular favorite on this CD is a jam with the Men of Worth on "Sleepy Maggie/The Sugar Merchant/Bratach Brana". Hornpipes always make me wish I knew how to dance properly, and the Harry's Hornpipes set ("Jake Warren/With Drummers in Mind" by Harry S. McNulty) has the usual affect. "Wallop the Cat" from Wicked Tinkers is probably one of the Tinker's most popular tunes, but I much prefer the closing piece, "Bog", which utilizes the Bronze Age Celtic Horn and makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Banger for Breakfast is a fun and exciting CD and I look forward to the second half of this project. At 63 minutes this is a solid chunk of fine entertainment, and I think they've got yet another damn near perfect album here.
Wicked Tinkers, Loud (Thistle Pricks Productions, 2002)
I would love to hear what comedian, and once upon-a-time folk singer, Billy Connolly would have to say about the Corn Na Lliran (Bronze Age Irish Horn) and Didgeridoo on the aptly named opening track 'Bog'. Because you see, on this side of the pond the word bog is often used to refer to the toilet! Now don't let this put you off the album! For although I thought the horn part was a bit too long, and I was just about to hit the fast-forward button, when the Highland bagpipes and drums set in my confidence was restored. You might say the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and I found myself reaching for my Claymore, just to kill off a few more sassenachs. For make no mistake about it, this is real Sterling music!
So who are the Wicked Tinkers? Virtually unheard of on my side of the pond. Well, this is the band's third album, and they are: Aaron Shaw on Highland bagpipes, Scottish small pipes, chanter, trump (Jaw-Harp), and vocals; Wayne Belger on Bronze Age Irish Horn in 'Bd', bodhran and backing vocals, Warren Casey makes up half of the thumping and banging department on bass tapan, bodhran, darabukka, whistle, and backing vocals; along with Keith Jones on snare drums, djembe, bongos, timbale and backing vocals. All of them hail from the Los Angeles, California. Recording them must have been a technical nightmare, but Scott Fraser at Architecture in L.A. has done a good job.
On this album you have what the Wicked Tinkers call Gaelic Bagpipe Music, not the refined playing of a normal pipe band, but their own version of what the ancient tribal bands might have been like. It's the sort of sound you might have heard at Scottish weddings, ceilidhs, or around the campfires of a highland raiding party. Before playing the album, on reading the sleeve notes, I wondered how the hell they could make an album consisting of a bent piece of Irish plumbing (that does not even have a mouth piece!), Highland bagpipes and some drums even remotely entertaining to anyone other than a Scotsman. Well I am here to tell you they have! The repertoire depends mainly on tunes from the Scottish Highland. Jigs and reels, strathspeys, marching, battle tunes, mixed in with some Irish reels and a slow aire, plus a lament. There is just one song on the album, 'I Will Go', blended in with the tune to 'Hey Johnny Cope'. The set comes to an end with the funeral march "Lochaber No More."
The title track "Wicked Tinkers" is a set of 4 tunes consisting of a couple of contemporary works such as "Farewell to Whiskey" by Michael Mullen and "The Wicked Tinkers" and "Donald Varella's Jig" named after the author. "Percussion Suite" after a fade-in, it has what I think is a short song by Warren in Macedonian or Bulgarian, but whatever it is, it sounds okay.
I am the first to admit that bagpipes may not be to everybody's taste, but I defy anyone to keep their feet still when the penultimate "Reel Jam" kicks in after "Piobaireachd" (Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay..trad). It is a collection of favorites like "Sleepy Maggie," "Sugar Merchant," "High Road to Linton," "Jock Wilson's Ball" and more. But of course the album has to end with a set headed by "Flower of Scotland" by Roy Williamson and the traditional tune "Black Bear", two of my all time favourites!
When in Edinburgh, I once asked a similar sounding band "Where do you practice?" their reply was "Och, never the same place twice!" If you are a fan of Deaf Shepherd or such like, you must get this album. The Wicked Tinkers are obviously fun loving guys and have produced a great album here. Even if you think you do not like pipe music, this could well change your mind. Pour yourself a glass of single malt Scotch whiskey, sit back and let the music sink in.
We got a great review from "DIRTY LINEN"
(THE PREMIER FOLK MUSIC MAGAZINE IN THE WORLD)
If my car suddenly acquired one of those earthshaking sound systems that vibrates windows for a block in each direction, this might be the first CD I'd play. There's nothing subtle, or serious, about these guys -- just three smiling lads from California with a set of Highland bagpipes and assorted drums, having a lot of fun blasting away on an assortment of traditional and modern Scottish jigs, reels, hornpipes, and marches. A percussive wall of sound from snare and tenor drums and a booming Macedonian bass tappan reinforce Aaron Shaw's turbocharged piping on most tracks, with a couple of slow airs thrown in for a breather. Highly recommended for anyone who likes Scottish pipes and drums played with skill and power, or who just wants to scare off the neighbors.
T.J. McGrath -- © Dirty Linen, Ltd. All rights reserved