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Powerful gusts of wind

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Review by Earle Hitchner

A critic in The New York Times once remarked that the music of the highland pipes fell into one of two categories, military or mournful. New York’s Jerry O’Sullivan and Toronto’s Pat O’Gorman proved that critic wrong.

From outside the Turning Point in New York’s Rockland County, they began playing a medley of "The Eagle’s Whistle," a Breton tune, and two Irish reels. The piping pair then led John Skelton on bombarde and Tony Cuffe on tin whistle into The Turning Point, where all four sat playing at a table for a while, and they finished the medley on stage. There was nothing in the least military or mournful about this dramatic concert opening by the quartet, whimsically and aptly calling themselves the Windbags.

Best known for his playing of the elbow-powered uilleann pipes, O’Sullivan gained experience on the mouth-blown warpipes when he marched with the County Tyrone Pipe Band out of Queens, N.Y. His dexterity on both instruments, as well as on the elbow-powered Scottish smallpipes, proved a boon to the diverse, wind-driven sound of this band.

The idea of forming a group playing mostly wind instruments came from John Skelton, a master of such wind instruments as flute, tin whistle, and bombarde (a type of stentorian shawm) with the House Band. He also plays the veuze, a mouth-blown bagpipe from eastern Brittany.

Rounding out the band are Pat O’Gorman, a former member of Canadian group Rare Air, who plays highland pipes, flute, tin whistle, and biniou koz (translating in Breton as "old bagpipe," it’s smaller and louder than a veuze), and former Ossian member Tony Cuffe, a gifted Scots singer and player of guitar, harp, tin whistle, and harmonica.

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Cork’s Peader O’Riada, son of Seán O’Riada, wrote a deceptively light piece called "Fiach" that all four Windbags performed on tin whistles with intricate delicacy. O’Gorman switched to biniou koz and Skelton to bombarde for a set of Breton dance tunes, and that was followed by Cuffe’s harp playing of a highland pipe tune, "The Burning of the Piper’s Hut," neatly tethered to three Irish jigs that featured Cuffe on harmonica, O’Sullivan on uilleann pipes, and Skelton on bodhrán.

Concluding the first half of the concert was a cluster of strathspeys and reels performed at Cape Breton tempo by O’Sullivan on uilleann pipes, Cuffe on guitar, and Skelton on flute.

The second half began with what were essentially pipe solos: Skelton playing veuze on some Breton tunes, O’Gorman playing highland pipes on Breton and Asturian tunes, and O’Sullivan playing uilleann pipes on a slow air and some Irish dance tunes. Cuffe capped that skein of three piping solos with a robust Scots song from the mid-18th century, "Maggie Lauder," on which O’Sullivan added uilleann pipes and Skelton and O’Gorman added tin whistles.

"Wendell’s Wedding," a beautiful composition from Cuffe, was played by him on harp, and the blend of that instrument with O’Sullivan’s low whistle, Skelton’s tin whistle, and O’Gorman’s flute brought the richness of the melody to the fore.

The last medley of the evening consisted of reels, including "McGovern’s" and "Trip to Windsor." It underscored how inventive the interplay was among these four expert musicians on a dozen different instruments throughout the concert, suggesting that a skill wind like theirs blows all good.

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