Ian McMillan On The Shining Brass That Is The Black Dyke Band

The Radio 3 Verb presenter gives us his take on The Black Dyke Band and the quality of brass music.
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The Radio 3 Verb presenter gives us his take on The Black Dyke Band and the quality of brass music.

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Whenever Barnsley FC are involved in a cup run or go on a winning splurge of games and draw the attention of the national media, the resulting TV package will begin with a view of terraced streets, a flat-capped codger or two and, inevitably, a slow and lilting brass band tune. That’s how much of the world sees brass music: it’s a sentimental cliché, lashed to the past, struggling to survive in a world that’s zoomed past it, leaving it straining for significance.

I disagree, of course; to me, brass is a vital community music, a music that prides itself on constant reinvention coupled with a sense of the past. And the uniforms are great, too.

I’ve worked with the Black Dyke Band a lot over the past few years; they’re one of Yorkshire’s oldest bands, formed in 1855 in the village of Queensbury between Bradford and Halifax, firstly as the Black Dyke Mills Band and later just as the Black Dyke Band. Mind you, when they went to New York they had to call themselves the Yorkshire Brass Band, which doesn’t have the same ring to it at all. The organiser were apparently worried about the demographic of the audience, but they shouldn’t have been.

I’ve presented their concerts in huge halls and more than once I’ve compared the experience of standing beside them as they blast out something fast and loud to standing on the wing of a jumbo jet. The noise is amazing and visceral and shakes you to the foundations of your flat cap.

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I’ve written words for new pieces for them, too, and they’re always premiering new work. It’s not all Ilkley Moor Baht At, unless it’s a new atonal version called Baht At Variations.

Hall One at The Sage in Gateshead is a fantastic space; the acoustics are magnificent and I could hear the people behind me opening their mints in clear-as-a-bell stereo. Nick Childs is the charismatic Welsh conductor of the band and this afternoon he’s sharing the baton with his brother Robert; their styles are slightly different: Robert’s up on the balls of his feet more, almost dancing his way into the music, whereas Nick smiles and cajoles the band in a way that allows them to soar.

The music, as you’d expect, is varied and delightful. It’s always struck me as poignant that some many bands sprang from mining communities (although of course the Black Dyke didn’t) and a music that needs lots of breath comes from places where breath is scarce.

The band start with Queensbury, their theme tune, and then give us a new piece, a fiendishly difficult test piece that they’ll be playing at competitions. As a new music junkie I loved the way it built like clouds do just before a storm, but the mint openers behind me aren’t so sure; they clap politely but when the band play ‘Oh When the Saints’ they whoop and cheer.

Players are foregrounded, taking solos like they do in jazz, and the lever of musicianship is astonishing. Jo Cook turns the tuba into a thing of great beauty and delicacy rather than a comedy turn, and Paul Duffy burns up the aforementioned ‘Oh When the Saints’ with his soprano cornet. At the end, their encore is a Tribute To Glenn Miller, and when they announce it the man next to me shouts Hear Hear as though he’s in swing Parliament.

After the gig we stay in the lovely Hilton next to The Sage; normally its quiet but the X Factor tour was on at the Arena in Newcastle so the corridors are full of excitable teens and pre teens and leather-trousered mams who should know better. I prefer the Mint and Hear Hear Crowd, to be honest.

You can find out more on The Black Dyke Band here, on their official site.