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Battlefield Band
by Chris Flisher © 1994 /
(first published March 1994 Worcester Phoenix)

Battlefield Band
The bittersweet wail of bagpipes conjures up images of fog-drenched moors, ancient castles and red-cheeked men in plaid kilts. It's high, sharp squeal, offset by a sustained, lulling drone is an eerie and often lonely sound. Few instruments convey such atmosphere with as much emotion as a set of bagpipes, drawing an immediate and inseparable association with the heritage of Scotland. Although the most recognizable component, the bagpipes are just one of the many traditional instruments the Battlefield Band use to keep the sound of Scotland's past alive. Drawing on the musical history of their country while leading a charge of, "Forward With Scotland's Past," this roots-driven acoustic band combine guitars, fiddles, accordions, synthesizers, drums and, yes, bagpipes together in a homogeneous blend of music that is as much historical as it is current. It is a sound born of tradition and driven by a uniquely contemporary vision that they stumbled on quite by accident.

Founding member Alan Reid explains in a interview from his home in Scotland, "We started out in 1969 playing folky, rocky music by Bob Dylan and The Byrds and whatever was popular at the time. Then as we started listening to traditional English music, our musical universe got nearer and nearer to home." Realizing that the grass is often greener right in your own backyard, Reid recalls, laughing in his thick brogue accent, "We thought about it and said well why don't we play something Scottish — now that's a novel idea!" It was purely an accidental discovery, almost backwards. "It was just the opposite of throwing a stone into a pool," he continues. "The circles came in to the middle, not out and away."

Using the music from their Scottish roots, the band took up the sounds of their forefathers, combined it with keyboards, synthesizers and other contemporary electric instruments and put a new twist on Celtic music. "In flavor, we try to keep our songs original and close to the starting point," explains Reid. "Other times we try to update the text (lyrics) and contemporize the music." True to their slogan, the band draws on the past for direction, opting to use it as a starting point rather than a sole source, and brings the music up to the present where it is more relevant. "Tradition is not a static thing. We have this great heritage of sounds from the past and we have soaked it up through our music," explains Reid.

After the band "discovered" Scottish music, they found that local audiences were less than enthusiastic about their own heritage. "We played in bars in Scotland and no one was really into Scottish music," he recalls. "They wanted to hear country and western—it is a thriving scene in Scotland and Ireland. But when we started playing in folk clubs, people began to listen." As a result the band took time to reconsider their sound and began experimenting with new ideas and instruments. "I started playing keyboards," Reid recalls. "I had an American pump organ and a brand new hybrid music evolved as we developed our sound. Gradually we added other instruments and more contemporary songs to our concerts."

On the other hand, Scottish music purists often find the band too experimental, too extreme a departure from the traditions of their homeland. "People in some areas think we are a bit radical and that we aren't authentic enough," Reid explains. "They don't like to hear a fiddle and a synthesizer together. They prefer to hear a more rootsy sound." No one in the band is bothered by this dilemma. In fact, it has just the opposite effect, as Reid explains, "It was only when songs became cliched and predictable that we stopped playing them."

The fact that few people object to their style of music is completely overshadowed by the swelling ranks of fans from around the world. "Our popularity stems from the fact that we do a good show with lots of excitement and changing moods. Some folks like the dance tunes, others like the quieter ballads."

Whether overlaying shrill bagpipes with a wash of synthetic keyboards or mixing fiddles and accordions, buoyed by drums, the band remains true to their original vision and after 25 years, 17 albums, and numerous personnel changes, the current line-up includes, original-member Alan Reid ( keyboards and vocals) who is joined by Alistair Russell (vocals, guitar and cittern — a modern remake of a Renaissance guitar), John McCusker (fiddle, accordion, and whistles), and Iain MacDonald ( bagpipes, flute and vocals).

In the end, expert musicianship and a genuine desire to experiment bring out the best in this band. "We always dabble with a few rock songs and stamp them with our touches," explains Reid. "For years we performed "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedance Clearwater Revival and the audience loved it. We don't approach it as a joke or something that's crazy, we take it as serious music. We are not flippant about it, we just like to surprise our audience." As a result, their current stage show is diverse and includes remakes of songs by Roy Orbison, Dire Straits, and many others.

Typically ethnic music is a direct representation of the country or race of its origin. However, as the world becomes smaller and influences become broader, the ability to compartmentalize becomes harder. Reid concludes, "In the global village there are influences from every corner of the world that we take. It is radio and the music business that try to categorize you into ethnic music." If this is ethnic music then the Battlefield Band represent a new culture — one that draws sounds and colors from diverse spheres of influence. "Music is like a train," concludes Reid. "We have taken it up and passed it on to other musicians. It is a continuum."

Chris Flisher

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