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Kells Irish Pipes and Drums prepare for March Madness

Group at heart of Portland's St. Patrick's Day festival


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Kells Irish Pipes and Drums perform the second and fourth Saturday of each month at the popular downtown pub in Portland. Kells plays host to the largest St. Patricks Day party.Legend has it the Irish invented the bagpipes as a joke and gave them to the Scots, who never got the gag, says Jon Moritz, lead piper in Kells Irish Pipes and Drums.

Indeed, it’s always a bit of a surprise to be reminded of how deeply a part of Irish music bagpipes can be. Sure, most fans of Irish music have seen its performers employ the more mellow uilleann pipes, inflated by means of a small set of bellows strapped around the waist and the right arm. However, a number of Irish musicians also play the more boisterous bagpipes, inflated by the player breathing through a pipe. You can hear a load of them if you stroll by Kells Irish Restaurant & Pub, 112 S.W. Second Ave., on every second and fourth Saturday evening each month.

There, the Kells Irish Pipes and Drums, informally called the Kells Pipers, can get a crowd of buzzed revelers to quit talking and start listening as the group reels off one soul-stirring melody after another.

“For me it’s soul music,” says piper Christina Henderson, echoing what many of the pipers and drummers say.

“I heard it the first time, and I just said, ‘Wow!’ ” adds piper Hank Delison, who belongs to the group, along with his wife, Susan. He says that he “dared” his wife to take up the pipes after they attended a piping festival, and wound up liking her piping so much he took them up himself.

The musicians have been readying themselves for this weekend, when the pub celebrates St. Patrick’s Day. The holiday falls on Monday, March 17, but the pipers and drummers play all weekend at Kells, which hosts the Northwest’s largest Irish festival each year at this time.

The pipers and drummers play at: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 15; 1:45 p.m. Sunday, March 16; and at 7 p.m. Monday, March 17, in the big tent out back. The group also will perform sporadically throughout the weekend at other times in the tent, as well as in Kells Brew Pub, 210 N.W. 21st Ave. Other performers over the weekend include Cul an Ti, Shana Morrison, Coming Up Threes and Super Diamond.

Children’s activities take place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, and include arts and crafts, dancers, face painting and music.

For a complete list of Kells St. Patrick’s Festival events, as well as info on the pipers, visit www.kellsirishportland.com.

Group history

Formed in 1993, the Pipes and Drums have marched in the Starlight Parade — probably the group’s favorite marching event — as well as several other parades. The outfit also has played before Portland Timbers games and at weddings, memorials and parties.

Members rehearse from 7 to 9 p.m. Mondays, according to George Coleman, piper sergeant.

“That’s about as much as we can stand,” he says with a smile. Members cite their roots as Irish and/or Scottish-Americans among the reasons they joined the band. Matt Aalto is one of the newest members and bangs the bass drum.

“I love the music and the excitement of being able to play in front of a group,” he says. “We’re doing something that’s outside your comfort zone.”

“I like the feeling you get when you’re playing it well, when all the pipes are in tune and the music is cracking,” says piper Victoria MacKenzie.

Coleman adds that he loves the effect the band has on listeners when the group strikes up a tune.

“Their attitude changes from where they are, and they’re taken someplace else,” he says.

The timekeepers

While most listeners probably focus on the drone and cry of the pipes, more astute music lovers should give a listen to the drummers, notes Drum Sgt. Scott Cooper.

“The bagpipes have only one volume — loud,” he says with a smile. “The role of the drummer is to provide texture along with the rhythm.”

It was a rhythmically adventurous rock band that inspired Susan Scott to take up Irish drums, although she almost plucked strings instead.

“I always wanted to play bass guitar, like Tina Weymouth in Talking Heads,” she says. As if on cue, the Heads’ “Road to Nowhere,” with its pronounced marching band drum-lines, comes over the Kells sound system. Scott says she first heard pipes and drums in a parade when she was a child and would scurry from her parents whenever she heard such music.

“I used to watch them religiously,” she says of the bands. “I would watch the kilts sway. I was totally mesmerized.”

Speaking of those weighty kilts, every member of the group seems to have one story about people wondering what they wear beneath them. Coleman says one woman impishly asked him what was worn underneath his kilt.

“My dear, nothing is worn beneath my kilt — everything is in perfect working order,” he responded.

Members also note if a drunken reveler gets too close, they might get a slight “whack” on the arm or shoulders from one of the drummers.

“We take care of our own,” Delison says with a smile.

Drummer Scott Taylor says it’s that love for one another that is at the heart of the band’s raison d’être.

“I love the camaraderie and the music,” he says.