I'll Be Jiggerered!
Wolf Loescher loathed the three years he spent in Scotland. His German-born father had taken a job as general manager of an American-owned semiconductor plant and relocated the family from Texas to East Kilbride, near Glasgow. For the young teenager, it was three years of attempting to find a context, an American outsider trying to get inside the heart of Scotland the Brave.
But Loescher detested the persistent dirty nickel-gray Scottish sky, the identical government-planned gray buildings, his gray school uniform, and being the only kid in school who didn't have gray teeth. On his first day of school, Loescher recalls, he was standing in the schoolyard when the morning bell rang. A wee Scots laddie ran over to him and said, "You're the Yank. Bell just rang. Tit'yew."
Loescher knew his schoolmates were speaking some form of English. But the phrase was incomprehensible.
"The whole damn school scene was incomprehensible. It was like being on another planet," he remembers. Loescher never found out what "tit'yew" meant. It was what it was. And even though he played on the rugby team, Loescher never fit in.
He discovered he could connect to Scotland only through Scottish folk arts. "My mom looks out for my best interest," says Loescher. "Seeing how unhappy we all were, she attempted to bring in examples of music, books and poetry that would allow us to connect with this surprisingly strange new culture. Most important to me were the records of a group called the Corries."
The Corries were the Scottish answer to Ireland's Clancy Brothers, one of the leading proponents of the 1960's Scottish folk revival. The duo wrote and made famous the unofficial new national anthem, "Flower of Scotland."
"We went to see them live," says Loescher. "On a bare stage were two microphones and about 30 chairs. On each chair was a different instrument ranging from guitars and mandolins to bagpipes and whistles. By the end of the evening, the two had played every instrument. They had performed songs that were 400 years old with a vibrancy found in modern pop music." At last Loescher had found something to admire about and connect with in Scotland.
Cut to Austin's Sixth Street 11 years later.
Loescher is a student at the University of Texas in 1991 and plays drums in an Austin rock band. It's close to last call, just one of the far too many evenings Loescher watched frat boys gobble up a few too many Jell-O shots, and as Townes Van Zandt would have had it, bubble all over their dates. Loescher had a wee-hours epiphany.
"I realized I wanted to play music that had some meaning, something other than covers of other people's music," says Loescher.
Meanwhile, Loescher's mom, still looking after her son, knew the pipe major with Silver Thistle Pipes and Drums, an Austin bagpipe band. The band needed a snare drummer. "My son's a drummer," she told the pipe major.
Scottish-style snare drumming is an esoteric sidebar to the percussion world, for most drummers a cul de sac blown past on the bash and pop expressway. It emerged from the time when Scottish clans would gather for occasions either martial or mournful. By the 17th and 18th centuries, England had conquered much of Scotland and the piping tradition came under the influence of the British army. Military pipe bands emerged, and the military marches and laments incorporated some unlikely musical styles such as reels and strathspeys into the repertoire. In recent times, folklorists have come to dominate the tradition.
Wolf donned a lavender, pink and yellow kilt, the Silver Thistle uniform colors, and joined on the snares. He soon morphed into a piper.
"I never made a Braveheart connection," swears Loescher. "But there's an intrinsic passion when you play the bagpipes. There's one volume -- and it's loud. You never play pipes half-assed. There's an honesty and integrity in that."
Convinced he could figure out a new way to meld Celtic and rock, Loescher put an ad in the paper in 1991 "looking for musicians to form a Celtic folk group."
Out of the ad arose the group Two O'Clock Courage. Loescher was with them until 1997 when he left and formed Six-Mile Bridge with former members of Ceili's Muse. A year later Loescher began working on a solo recording project. The idea was to wax a Celtic "supersession." Loescher invited Full Circle's Brendan O'Sullivan on accordion, the Blarney Brothers' Matthew Williams on drums and Rodger Harrison on bass, the Rogue's Lars Sloan on pipes and whistles, Hamilton Pipe and Drum's piper Richard Kean and Free Whiski's vocalist Deanna Smith.
The recording project evolved into the band Jiggernaut.
"I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have found a group of outstanding and amazing musicians," says Loescher. "But I'm frankly amazed at how close we all became in a very short time. The whole CD was more or less recorded in the space of five days Jiggernaut was originally intended to be only a recording project, but we just have too much fun playing together not to take it on the road. These guys are all top-flight musicians in or out of the Celtic folk realm. I feel honored and occasionally humbled to be a part of this group."
At some point the band crossed over to the amplified side of the acoustic/electric divide. That means while the band plays some traditional folk songs, they are presenting themselves as rock musicians, jumping up and down on the stage instead of standing there like laid-back folkies. Call it glam-folk, but Jiggernaut now mixes 50 percent original tunes and half centuries-old jigs and reels.
One of their original tunes is called "Amazing Grace Again." It's a Loescher original about his pipe band experiences and being asked ad nauseam to play the hoary old hymn. "That's the first thing people ask you to perform," says Loescher. "It's a great song, but you get tired of it. The thing about a song like that is [you can connect] with a wide variety of people, from bikers to veterans to stoners."
"The pipes make the song into a religious experience. There's something guttural and primitive about the bagpipes and people's visceral reaction to them. There's no middle road. People either love or hate the bagpipes," continues Loescher, who mostly sticks to handling guitar, bouzouki and singing these days. Loescher now defers piping chores to the Scots-born, Alberta-bred Kean and Michigan native Sloan.
After their August 14 CD release at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, the band leaves town for first another CD release party in the Metroplex, then an August 18 appearance at the Milwaukee Irish Fest, called "the largest and best Irish cultural festival in North America" by representatives of the Smithsonian. Not bad for a little old Celtic rock band from Houston.
Jiggernaut is moving into a pan-Celtic mode, increasing its repertoire of Irish, Breton and Welsh music. The name of its CD is In Search of More. And that, says Loescher, sums up the band's philosophy.
"There's always something more out there," he believes, "more music, more to the story, more energy. We won't be happy until bagpipes appear on Top 40 radio alongside Britney Spears."
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