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."