Sounding Off with the Pipes and Drums of the Atlantic Watch
Updated: Feb 13, 2019
By Jess Ventura
Can you think of a time you attended a big festival, memorial, or parade that didn’t include bagpipers? There’s a good chance most of these memorable community events have featured men in kilts and the distinct, intense sound of the bagpipes. Though you may have seen them over the years, you probably don’t know them. Meet the Pipes and Drums of the Atlantic Watch, the band that’s been helping to preserve and celebrate Monmouth County’s strong ties to the Emerald Isle since 1993.
The Pipes and Drums of the Atlantic Watch is your local go-to Celtic band comprising highland pipers, drummers, and dancers, based in Red Bank. The band is a staple in times of both celebration and solemnity in the community, decked out in their traditional dress and sharing their sounds at the Red Bank Santa Parade, the Atlantic Highlands 9/11 Memorial Service, the Belmar St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and the Red Bank Flavor Festival, to name a few. The group’s activities continue to be supported through Local Arts Program grants awarded by Monmouth Arts.
The Atlantic Watch has even carried its Celtic sound far from its usual haunts, playing with distinction in Hawaii, New Orleans, Scotland, Bermuda, and Canada. One of the highest honors from the Atlantic Watch’s long history includes its quinquennial trip in Edinburgh, Scotland, where its members march the Royal Mile with the historic Black Watch Royal Regiment.
And right on heels of its 25th anniversary in 2018, the Atlantic Watch took its act from the streets to the stage with Grammy award-winning Irish band the Chieftains, on the stage of the historic Count Basie Theatre. It was a moment that Thomas Curtis, a long-time member of the Watch, lauds as “one of the best of his life.” “After listening to the Chieftains for over thirty years, performing with them was one of the highlights of my life,” says Curtis. “Being chosen to collaborate with them was the dream of a lifetime.”
For local legends that have been around as long as the Atlantic Watch, the band has reached a nostalgic point, with many members in or approaching their senior years. Recruitment is a constant focus. But even as the group’s current lineup starts to shrink, they still take up the bagpipes for more than 20 parades and events a year, rain or shine (they racked up more than 30 miles of marching in 2018). Because whether it’s one mile down the road, 3,000 miles overseas, or on stage with legends, it’s the thrill of performing for the people that matters. "The music we play strikes a visceral chord in our audiences,” says Curtis. “Pipes move people.”
The Atlantic Watch recognizes the Irish pride in the community, and rather than watching the band ossify over the next few years, they strive to carry on their legacy by making Celtic arts as accessible as possible. The Watch provides lessons in piping, snare drum, tenor drum, and Scottish dancing to members at no charge. “Our doors are open to anyone with even the slightest interest in playing,” says Curtis. “Any age, any time.”
Those who try the bagpipes are likely to stick around, and the Atlantic Watch has been working hard to pass the baton on to the next era of young musicians. The few young lads and lasses who grew up with the band have become members for life and even gone on to represent the Atlantic Watch’s tutelage at universities around the world. “They enjoy playing the instrument, because the bagpipe is such a fun instrument to play,” explains Curtis. “But most importantly, it’s the camaraderie and support. Most of the kids who played with us come back or rise through the ranks of the pipe bands at their colleges,” he continues. “It’s heartwarming to see."
On the heels of celebrating 25 years of achievements, Curtis hopes that this isn’t the crest of the wave for the Atlantic Watch, but the start of what’s to come. “Our band is aging out in a way, but I am ecstatic to see the younger members of our community step up to the plate and bring new blood into this organization,” says Curtis. “I’m so excited to see the next generation carry on the legacy.”