Enter the Haggis
at Mount Hope Estate
& Winery, Cornwall, PA
(8-9 July 2000)

I thought I'd seen the pinnacle of North American bagpipe rock bands back in the days when Neil Anderson was still adding his special flair to Seven Nations. But a Toronto quintet bearing the vaguely rude-sounding name of Enter the Haggis may just have them beat.

Enter the Haggis features your basic rock band trio -- electric guitar, electric bass and drum kit -- with the addition of bagpipes and electric fiddle to create their hallmark sound. They fill their sets with a mix of serious rockin' and traditional tunes, plus an infusion of humor -- I defy anyone not to laugh at Craig Downie's recounting of the adventures of "The Mexican Scotsman," his plight with a police officer in "Donald, Where's Your Trousers?" and the innuendo-laden "Ride My Monster."

I wandered their way during the end of their afternoon set on the first day of a two-day Celtic Fling at Mount Hope. It was just on the high side of hot, and the crowds were sprinkled with lunatics in full Highland garb. I didn't know what to expect from the band, but the distant sound of a well-played bagpipe lured me from the pub and past the merchants just in time to catch the final moments of the show. It was enough to bring me back that evening, for their headlining slot for the day. And again on Sunday, afternoon and evening shows.

This is a lively, fun and infectious band.

Downie's bagpipe leads the way through numerous kickin' instrumental sets. He also leads his share of songs, singing with a sort of whimsical earnestness which begs for attention. Several high points in the show include some Downie originals, including the aforementioned "Ride My Monster" (a sort of Scottish variation on Chuck Berry's "My Ding-a-ling"), "The Mexican Scotsman" (a cross-cultural marvel featuring bullfight music on bagpipes) and "Bagpipes on Mars" (OK, you can figure that one out).

He's not alone up there, either, despite his ability for catching the ear and eye. Besides Downie, Enter the Haggis is Rob McCrady on bass, guitar and vocals, Michael Pallett on fiddles, keyboards and vocals, Trevor Lewington on guitar and vocals, and James Campbell on drums. They work together well, with an easy camaraderie on stage and a tight musical formation in every tune.

Downie traded his pipes for the whistle to accompany McCrady (the only other original member of the band remaining) on the homesick ballad "Home." The sets featured plenty of bellicose bagpipe tunes, as well as some excellent bagpipe-and-fiddle numbers. At one point, everyone else left the stage to Pallett and Campbell for a fiddle and drum set which had the whole crowd clapping along ... until the duet turned into a duel, mingling fiddle riffs with pulsating drum solos.

Somehow, that segued into a Celtic funk and bad dancing contest on the chessboard dance floor, where a mix of stepdancing and disco moves warred with a bit of rave and ballroom stylings. An excellent cover of "Lannigan's Ball" (unfortunately not on the band's only CD, Let the Wind Blow High) turned the floor first into a high-kicking chorus line, then a dance melee.

Although the Celtic Fling format gave the band only an hour for its scattered sets, they made up lost time in each day's "ceilidh" finale, where they ripped through additional tunes and shared the stage with the Texas bagpipe band, the Rogues.

It was all over too soon. But I'd found a new band to follow; Enter the Haggis is worth seeking out.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy Let the Wind Blow High from Amazon.com.

Visit the Enter the Haggis website.