Tasmanian folk writer/reviewer Peter Grant catches up with the Batties "Down Under".
Come September 1999, Battlefield Band will have been in existence for 30 years. It's an amazing enough achievement, but it's given an almost bizarre note when you consider that their long-established fiddler, John McCusker, will be only 26 years old by then. That's another way of saying that this classic Scottish folk band has always managed to blend the young and the old; the traditional and the contemporary. In fact it may just be the secret of their continuing success.
Of course it also means that the band has seen a few comings and goings over the years. "If I sit down for five minutes and think about it, and work it out, it's something like 21 (members)" Alan Reid admits. He is the only original member still there. It was Reid who first introduced synthesiser to Scottish folk (quipping at the time that it was an invention of Scotsman Lachlan McMoog). He had begun with an old American pedal organ, producing what he called their characteristic "organ wall-of-sound". The progression to synthesiser was natural, despite it raising a few eye-brows among the traditionalists.
The Batties have never been afraid to do that, introducing tongue-in-cheek concert numbers such as "Bad Moon Rising" and "Proud Mary" with bagpipe lead breaks. But their overall sound has always remained identifiably Scottish folk music. And they’re at their best playing the melodic tunes and songs that grow out of that tradition.
One feature of Battlefield's line-ups over the years has been the number of top multi-instrumentalists they've had. Names like Brian McNeill, Pat Kilbride and John McCusker come readily to mind. And since 1979, they've also had pipers of renown in the group. It all adds up to the fact that the Batties attract some of the cream of the Scottish scene. The two latest changes are cases in point. After the departure of Alastair Russell and Iain MacDonald last year, Davy Steele and Mike Katz stepped into the breach. Mike Katz was most recently star piper with Ceolbeg, an exciting Scottish band in which Davy Steele had earlier enhanced his reputation as one of that country’s finest traditional singer-guitarists. Davy has since been in pan-Celtic “supergroups” Clan Alba and Caledon. So, I can’t help asking, why Battlefield?
He doesn't have to muse for long. "I've listened to the Batties since they started. They were guiding, shining lights. (And) they've always got top-level musicians coming through." Add to that the fact that there aren't that many full-time folk bands around in Scotland, and Davy jumped at the chance to join. "You'd consider it one of the best jobs in the world," he enthuses, giving high praise to the organisation behind the band.
The latest album and their current live act both show that there's still room for Davy’s own contribution. His poignant “Beaches of St Valery” - based on his uncle’s World War 2 experiences - is one of the features of both the show and the new album “Rain, Hail or Shine”. And Davy’s treatment of the traditional song “Norlan Wind”, following on from a poignant John McCusker low whistle piece, proved a rousing show-starter at their Hobart concert.
Typical of the Batties’ willingness to keep up, the CD comes with a CD-ROM playable bonus, carrying video, photos, stories and extra music that can be accessed via a PC. The boys are justly proud of their latest work. They are also buoyed by the current Scottish renaissance. "There are lots and lots of young people playing traditional music . . . speaking or learning Gaelic . . . resurrecting step dancing", a phenomenon Alan describes as "quite amazing". It may be part of the current craze for all things celtic, but they see it as deeper than just a Riverdance-inspired fad.
Indeed Alan Reid admits to being somewhat puzzled by the success of Riverdance as a show. When we discuss it further, I venture that perhaps Scotland’s celtic enthusiasm has had a broader focus than Ireland’s; that Scotland’s “answer” to Riverdance - if there had to be an answer - has been a nation-wide cultural revival rather than a spectacular show or two. Alan is inclined to agree. In Scotland music, dance, language, arts and craft are all playing a major part. Still with everyone jumping on the van, the Batties must have a sense of "where have you all been all these years?" They’ve always known what a good thing they were on to.
Through all these years Alan Reid has continued to chronicle the changing concerns of Scotland through his own songwriting. 10 or 15 years ago, it was pit and shipyard closures. These days there is a renewed optimism, not because pits or yards are opening again, but because of the upsurge in Scottish culture and nationalistic feeling. With a fine new solo album (“The Sunlit Eye”) Alan seems to be well and truly riding the wave of Scottish pride.
On Scottish independence, he admits that he personally hopes it will come (though he ventures the opinion that Australia will become a republic beforehand). But he takes care not to write overtly political songs, preferring instead "social comment" songs. "I don't prescribe to the idea that you should preach to people or ram home your political beliefs . . . there are more subtle ways to do it."
I ask about the increasing popularity of percussion in Scottish bands, noting their very effective use of Shooglenifty's James Macintosh on their 1995 CD "Threads". Alan says they are resisting the urge to have a full-time percussionist. Although their live performances feature some use of the bodhran, he sees percussion as "an adjunct rather than an ever-present" feature. And, with a wee Scottish twinkle behind his glasses, he adds "to be quite frank about it, it's another mouth to feed."
Of course one of the biggest questions to be answered on their current tour is just how well the new combination has gelled. It could only be answered by the concert itself. And if Hobart in June is anything to go by, they’re well on the way to becoming one of the best Batties line-ups ever. We’ve noted above that Davy Steele is already making his mark in their live sets. But so too is piper Mike Katz. Standing mostly immobile, his long beard giving him the appearance of a Hebrew patriarch, Mike lets his playing do the talking. And it says loud and clear that yet again the Batties have a first-rate piper (and whistler). You get the feeling that as he spends more time with the band and injects more of his own tunes, and his own wry humour, both the sound and the live act will be better still.
By the time the current tour reaches North America (August) and Germany (September, 1998), my bet is that Battlefield Band will be in frighteningly good form. If they come anywhere near where you live, I would advise you not to miss this legendary band still taking the Scottish tradition forward. For tour details check their website.
Photo Credit: All Photos by Lynne Grant
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