Backstage at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver, Colorado, Rochester Caledonian Pipe Band pipe major Mike Watson looked out at the moon shining bright over the crowd gathered to watch Trampled by Turtles on July 19.
Watson made sure the other pipers also took in the sight.
Trampled by Turtles, a bluegrass/folk band from Duluth, had invited the pipe band to play alongside them on stage, accompanying the band during “Alone” and giving a solo performance of “Amazing Grace.”
“I was just driving down the road when I got a text from their road manager asking, ‘Do you want to play at Red Rocks?’” Watson said. “I had to stop the car.”
This wasn’t the first time the Caledonian Pipe Band caught Trampled’s eye.
The band had reached out three other times for performances of “Amazing Grace” for St. Paul’s Block Party, the State Fair, and Festival Palomino.
“I think it helps we’re from Minnesota,” Watson said. “They want to be a Minnesota band and known as one. But I think we’re just damn lucky.”
Piping preparation and practice
For such a seemingly odd musical pairing, bagpipes and bluegrass actually work well together.
It’s one thing to feature the instruments in Trampled’s original tunes, but “Amazing Grace,” often played at parades and funerals, is a bagpipe classic.
“When you’re a player, and you watch people react to “Amazing Grace,” you can be anywhere in any setting, and somebody will tear up,” Watson said. “That song on the pipes really does strike a chord with people.”
Although they had months of preparation, the pipers continued to practice the day of the show in Denver. From their hotel’s parking lot, a public park, the green room, and within the deepest hallways of Red Rocks, they tuned and rehearsed.
After sound check, they walked around the venue, listened to other opening bands, paced, practiced and looked at the moon – anything they could do to keep their nerves down – before it was their turn to play.
On stage and overwhelmed
Thirty seconds into “Alone,” one of Trampled by Turtles’ most popular tracks, the Caledonian Pipe Band finally walked out. The stage was dimly lit, but loud cheers still came from the audience as their purple-colored silhouettes got into place.
“They knew it was coming and got excited for this crescendo moment,” pipe sergeant Tim Peters said.
After playing together for the climax of “Alone,” the bluegrass band left the stage, leaving the pipe band to end the main set alone.
The band played the final note of “Amazing Grace,” lifted their bagpipes in a salute to the audience and headed off stage where they got handshakes from each Trampled by Turtles member.
“I was the last one off, and when I got to Dave Simonett, he grabbed me and hugged me,” Watson said. “It was like I got a hug for the band – it was just overwhelming.”
After the show, piper Carol Jaquith said close to 300 people had surrounded the stage, told them they played beautifully, and said many of them cried.
“I got so overwhelmed I had to turn around and leave because I didn’t know how to handle it,” Jaquith said. “I didn’t realize that we made such an impact playing for everyone there. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said.
Mike piped in: “Well, we hope not.”