The Battlefield Band has managed to endure and remain fresh by continuing to attract young, talented musicians to replace outgoing members. In all, over 21 musicians have passed through the band’s lineup over the years. Their continued success has been the ability to incorporate the talents of new members, allowing the music to change and be played with continued energy. After three decades of traveling on the road, only one of the original Batties remains—keyboardist, songwriter, and vocalist Alan Reid. In 1969, Reid and three college friends originally formed the Battlefield Band as a weekend house band in a pub near Glasgow. The band is named for the Glasgow suburb Battlefield, from which the four founding members hail.
The Battlefield Band’s music has been adopted by the popular Scottish cultural movement as the people of Scotland reflect on a rich cultural past and gain a new identity. Reid explained to John Roos of the Los Angeles Times: “The roots and strengths of our music lie in the past, but we see our mission as bringing it into the modern world. We’re playing a living, evolving tradition, not a museum piece. I feel we’re defining what our culture is, as well as adding to it.” During the 1990s, the band began to gain a larger appeal both within and outside of Scotland by touring frequently in Europe and North America.
All of the members of the Battlefield Band are multi-instrumentalists and provide their own musical compositions in addition to the traditional music the band plays. For this reason, the band has never hired a full-time drummer. To keep the beat, the band has used the traditional bodhran, a pan drum which is held in one hand, or a modern drum machine. Reid first played an old American pedal organ which he referred to as an “organ wall-of-sound” where the more traditional instruments could be displayed. Later Reid adopted the synthesizer, keyboards, and drum machine. Musical puritans were unsettled by the introduction of this technology and criticized the change from the traditional Celtic music. Reid told Roos in response to this concern: “We’ve been answering that one for years, but what it really comes down to is style and people’s own taste… Doubters that don’t think using the synthesizer is a valid thing … well, they’ll go off on their own way while we live our life quite happily. We’re not hung up about it.”
It is best to view the Battlefield Band’s three decades of existence in four stages which are marked by major lineup changes. During the first stage, the band built a strong reputation for masterful musicianship which sparked a wider appeal for Celtic music in Scotland. The musical partnership of Reid and Brian McNeill on fiddle had been the driving force of the band for 20 years. In the early 1980s, the band hit a rough spell and needed an experienced manager to help put it on the right foot. Robin Moron, owner of Temple Records, was a great admirer and became the band’s manager. With Morton’s experience and guidance, the band was recharged and focused on producing several albums and playing to growing audiences in which they showcased their talent, energy, and progressive style. Many Celtic bands were influenced by the Battlefield Band’s work, and a whole new generation of Celtic musicians have been inspired to carry on the tradition.
The second stage occurred in 1990 when McNeill left the band and two new members joined the Batties’ ranks. Piper/flutist Iain MacDonald and fiddle/whistle/accordion/cittern player John McCusker helped the band move into their third decade. The new members joined guitar/cittern player Alistair Russell and Reid. McCusker was only 17 when he joined the band. It was a school trip to see a Battlefield Band concert that gave McCusker the drive and inspiration to pursue music. McCusker played in a successful school band, Parcel O’ Rogues, and honed his skills at a young age. When McCusker completed his studies, the young prodigy immediately joined the band’s lineup. MacDonald came from the tradition of Western Highlands music and previously played with the Scottish band Ossian. The transition added McCusker’s contemporary style, youth, and brilliance and MacDonald’s traditional mastery of the Highland pipes. With its new lineup, the band went on to release five albums, the last being Across The Borders in 1997.
The band’s third stage occurred in 1997 when Russell and MacDonald left the band to follow other pursuits. Remaining members Reid and McCusker quickly filled the breach left by their bandmates’ departure. Filling the new spots were singer and guitarist Davy Steele and pipe player Mike Katz. Steele had already gained a reputation as Scotland’s finest traditional singer and guitarist while playing with top Celtic bands Coelbeg and Clan Alba. Steele shared his glowing opinion of the Batties with Peter Grant of Folk World: “I’ve listened to the Batties since they started. They were guiding, shining lights. (And) they’ve always got top-level musicians coming through.”
As with all of the band’s successful transitions, the new lineup changes prevented the Battlefield Band from ever becoming stale. Moving ahead and continuing the tradition of learning new styles and make progress by extending their musical frontier, the band’s new incarnation released Rain, Hail Or Shine in 1998. Katz revealed his full tone and frenzied finger technique on the album’s first track, while Steele took the front spot on the second track, “Heave Ya Ho,” a whaling song he composed. On the album’s third track, McCusker showcased his talent on the fiddle with a medley of his own composition. Overall, the album revealed a de-emphasized synthesizer and a return to traditional instrumentation. Many of the songs were of a melancholy nature. The album proved to be the band’s top selling to date, and the lineup proved to be a perfect blend of energetic youth and maturity. In 1999, the Battlefield Band released the highly-acclaimed album Leaving Friday Harbor.
Unfortunately, a serious illness forced Steele to leave the band suddenly while touring in 1999. The band called on Malcom Stitt and Pat Kilbride to step in for Steele to complete tour commitments. In March of 2000, Karine Polwart filled Steele’s spot full-time and moved the band into their fourth stage. The addition of Polwart provided another top singer and guitarist to the band’s lineup. Polwart had received many of Scotland’s most prestigious awards for her performances and songwriting talents. As a solo artist, she captured top prizes in 1998 at Auchtermuchty and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. With her band Malinky, she won the prestigious Dannhy Kyle Award for new talent at the Celtic Connections festival in 1999.
The Battlefield Band’s regenerative gifts continue as the group continues to expand musically and as always, keep their tour schedule full. With the addition of Polwart’s singing and songwriting skills, fans hope to soon hear an equally strong follow-up to Leaving Friday Harbor.
by Tiger Cosmos
Editado por Art-For-Life em Mar 8 2009, 6h48
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