Coppins Plays Smart, Socially Aware Bagpipe Rock and Eclectic Grooves

by delarue

Coppins’ new album The Prince That Nobody Knows literally has something for everybody. It’s got a creepy southwestern gothic song, a reggae tune, lots of socially conscious, wryly lyrical, soul-tinged hippie rock and some funk. But what Grier Coppins really does best is play bagpipes. He got his start busking with his pipes at the corner of Yonge and Bloor Streets in Toronto back in the 70s, went on to lead bagpipe funk band Rare Air in the 80s and a decade later, the R&B-inspired Taxi Chain. The songs on this album – streaming at Bandcamp – reflect pretty much every stop along the way. But the bagpipe stuff is the most original, and it’s fantastic.

The album opens with one of those tunes, Spaceman from Weslemkoon, a catchy funk number with doubletracked guitars set against Coppins’ otherworldly drone. They follow that with the ominous, bluesy Don’t Know Where I’m Going, with its eerily clangin guitar menace. Throughout the album – which is magnificently produced, with all kinds of multitracking and elaborate, imaginative arrangements – Coppins alternates between tenor guitar and bagpipes.Chris Staig plays the heavier, more blues-infused guitar parts while Ayron Mortley handles the more soul, jazz or African-inspired ones. Terry Wilkins plays bass on most of the tracks along with Paul Brennan on drums and many special guests.

The first of the socially conscious numbers, Big Boy contemplates growing up in world poisoned by pollution and a mad dash to spend and consume, set to a vamping roadhouse blues theme. The soul-tinged Happy on Earth considers how “this earth is Hell – to the Devil, Hell is Heaven.” The reggae tune Great Day for Living is even more sarcastic:

The sun is coming up like a cruise missile head
I’m looking for the blue sky, there’s a yellow film instead
The glaciers are melting and the earth is heating fast 
But to stop production would be too much to ask

Wanna Be Happy sets a darkly amusing whorehouse narrative to a slow Mississippi hill country blues-tinged groove. Coppins follows that with Before They Call Me Home, a reggae-inflected hippie rock tune and then the album’s funniest song, Sauce in a Can. Over a roaring, Stonesy stomp lit up by saxophonist Jim Bish’s one-man horn section, Coppins discovers that the stuff on the shelf that saves him when he’s too high to cook might not be as wonderful an invention as it first seems – the joke ending is too good to spoil.

The nebulously political anthem Push has a slower, similarly Stonesy groove, like an outtake from Sticky Fingers. Blue Banjo Breakdown, which follows it, doesn’t have a banjo – instead, it contrasts a soaring bagpipe hook with fiddle accents and roaring Keith Richards-style guitar. Fueled by Jesse Whiteley’s ragtime piano, Can’t Leave the Ladies Alone tells the wryly funny tale of a guy who just can’t get enough of a good thing, over Dan Hicks-ish oldtimey swing. A country tune, Live Forever sounds like an improved and more soulful version of Bob Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere. After that, the band makes a bagpipe theme out of Malian-style desert blues and ends with the almost nine-minute title track, a metaphorically-fueled medieval narrative set to a backdrop that’s one part Grateful Dead, one part desert rock. Like so many of the songs here, the ending is the last thing you would expect.