WHISKEY AND MORE WHISKEY. I'm listening for the drone of Highland Bagpipes--the "strange instrument" as described by Mike Katz, its player. It's carrying the whole rhythm of the wildly frenetic If Cadillac Made Tractors--the third track on Time & Tide, the Battlefield Band's newest release on Temple Records (a Rounder Records off-shoot).

Its piper virtuoso is a guy from Los Angeles with implausible Scottish connections, a guy with a ZZ Top beard, a guy with a Scottish accent.

"I've played the pipes since I was 10 years old," offers Katz. "Most of the kids who played pipes with me in the Valley were children of immigrants, with some ties to Scotland, but my folks are from Cleveland."

It wasn't Katz' intention to be a piper. Actually, he envisioned himself as more a jazz musician, but figured there wasn't much hope of a career in that field. So, instead he studied philosophy at Edinburgh University--an equally ridiculous career path, according to the very successful bagpiper. He went to Scotland in 1987 and immediately took on the brogue. (He says under Reagan and Thatcher, it was a pretty volatile time, so it was easier--if not necessary--to assume the accent.) He's been there ever since.

When Katz joined the Battlefield Band in 1997--a group going back more than 30 years--it was an odd mix.

"To be honest," admits Katz, "I wasn't into traditional music. Like most pipers, I was more into the competitive, regimented aspect of playing the instrument."

Fortunately for him, there were two bands at the time incorporating the acoustic and the electronic. One of those technology-wielding Celtic groups was the Battlefield Band.

"The pipes have traditionally existed in military culture," Katz explains about the role of the instrument. "They're loud and they tend to be a solo gig--marches, dirges and the like. But Gaelic music is, fortunately, in the pipe's funky scale."

Katz says that guys like him who play the pipes suffer from a strange neuroses. "Players don't take a rest and there's no real dynamic control of the pipes. It serves as a constant harmony for the song because of the drone."

Since he began playing in bands, Katz says the real excitement of this instrument is the interplay with others.

"But from the audience's point of view, the pipes are just very loud."

Katz is well-versed in musical genres, in influences, in the mongrel nature of much of the music we hear.

"It was uncool when I was a kid to listen to or play country music, for example. And now, bluegrass and old time are having a fantastic resurgence in this country. Music from the South and from Appalachia is finally beginning to get a wee bit of attention."

The American-turned-Scotsman is now very steeped in traditional music.

"We played a few weeks ago in West Virginia, and after the gig, we went to a pub and played all night with a gospel band. Imagine the sound of gospel and the pipes. It was amazing.

"But it's not just a one-way street," Katz adds. "Scottish music is certainly influenced by American traditions. It goes both ways.

"For instance, when I come to the Southwest, I love to listen to Mexican radio stations. Ranchero is almost European-sounding, like Austrian folk bands. Mexicans playing Czech music--it isn't that dissimilar.

"Actually, the Celtic music I play and Mexican music are structurally very similar. It's the same three chords. And what they're singing--it's all about sex, murder, death, unrequited love and plenty of whiskey-swigging."

So, I asked Mike Katz if he believes in fate.

"Yeah, I was born in '69, the year Battlefield was formed. There's no arguing with fate."

The band has nearly 20 albums to its name. They tour internationally , also going to more than 60 cities annually in the United States. In its 34-year history, the lineup of musicians has changed, but not much considering their length of time together. One of its founders, Alan Reid, is still singing and playing keyboards and guitar. Pat Kilbride has returned for a second stint, singing and playing guitar and cittern. The band's newest addition is 19-year-old Alasdair White on fiddle, whistle, banjo and Highland and Small Pipes.

And the American with the palpable Scottish accent is doing what anyone having a long-term love affair with the country and its music would do.

"We take our music all over the world. After Tucson, the last stop in the States, it's off to Uzbekistan."

The Battlefield Band climbs on stage on Saturday, April 19, at 8 p.m., at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Tickets cost $17 or $15 for seniors and must be purchased in advance at Antigone Books and CD City. Charge them by phone at In Concert! at 327-4809.

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