Hot sun, cold beer, bagpipes, drums, didgeridoos, and four wildly funny, talented, sexy men in kilts … OK, maybe that’s not your idea of Heaven, but I’ve seen the Wicked Tinkers so I know better.
The Tinkers are: award-winning piper and frontman Aaron Shaw; the delightfully insane Keith Jones on percussion (and “hollerin’ “); wild man Warren Casey, also on percussion; and the certifiable Wayne Belger on didgeridoo and, again, percussion. Bagpipe and bodhran, snare drum and djembe, didgeridoo and the amazing Bronze Age Celtic horn: if you haven’t figured out by now that the Tinkers are loud … well, we’ll just say that you may not be the sharpest dart in the board.
The Wicked Tinkers perform at Celtic festivals, Highland games, and renaissance faires up and down the West Coast. I caught their act at the Portland Scottish Highland Games. Throughout the day they played several sets lasting about 45 minutes each; I had planned to see their 1:30 show only. When it ended, I asked my husband if we could go back for the 3:30 set, and I didn’t have to ask twice. These guys can jam.
Both sets consisted of old favorites — unlike myself, most of the spectators were obviously familiar with the Tinkers’ work — and some pieces from their newest album Banger for Breakfast. The first show opened with some rollicking “jigs about birds” — “The Hen’s March/The Seagull/The Geese in the Bog” — followed by “Pumpkin’s Fancy,” at which point Keith Jones (did I mention he’s insane?) left the stage with his snare drum and marched about through the audience, ending up at one point inside the gym in the line for the ladies room. Eventually he wandered back across the field to the stage, and Aaron introduced the “Mackenzie Battle Charge,” warning us that it could incite trouble if there were any Mackenzies in the audience: he didn’t warn us that the entire band was going to march off the stage and circulate through the audience!
Surprises like this went on throughout both sets. Local radio hamsteak Dave Scott joined the band onstage toward the end of the first set for “Flower of Scotland/The Black Bear Hornpipe” and held his own on the drum surprisingly well. During the final song of the first set (“Radar Love,” and no I am not kidding you) a tiny blonde tyke called Lauren rushed the stage and danced her little heart out — the Tinkers played what might be called “the extended version” and by gum that little girl kept up with them for so long that fans were placing bets on who would drop first!
During the second show we were treated to the amazing Bog Set featuring a gigantic didgeridoo made in Oregon and the haunting Celtic horn, the pleasant “Fiollaigean” and the exciting “Hammer on the Anvil.” Even better, there were more impromptu fan performances, including a hornpipe danced by the “Wicked Tinker-belles” — the Belles, a trio of lovely teenage girls named Erin, Mary, and Mary, were apparently competitors on the Highland dance stages who donned Tinkers t-shirts and joined in the fun. The divinely mad Warren Casey engaged in a full-scale broadsword battle with some little boys (plastic souvenir swords against drumsticks) off and on throughout the set, rarely missing a beat. Oh, and I learned that bodhrans make handy beer trays when Wayne ran off the stage mid-set and returned with a round of MacTarnahan’s for the boys. The second set ended with more jigs but not before a short set of what Aaron claimed were “songs that should never be played on bagpipes,” including “Stairway to Heaven” and “If You Think I’m Sexy.”
Wicked Tinkers are crazy in the way that only very, very good performers can be, with a nuttiness that is enticing rather than intimidating. Consummate performers, they work together like the proverbial well-oiled machine, albeit one oiled with mutton grease and lubricated with plenty of ale. All four are, as I said previously, rock-star sexy — though they just ruin the fantasy when they mention that three of the four are married and two are new fathers or fathers-to-be! Be still my heart.
Admittance to the Highland Games is ten dollars, with the performances included in the price. I’ve paid five times as much for tickets to see bands ten times as famous in venues twenty times as large, and not had half as much fun. If you ever get the chance to catch the Tinkers onstage, don’t pass it up. It goes without saying that you’ll want to pick up a full set of their CDs.
(Mt. Hood Community College, Gresham, Oregon; July 19, 2003)