Piping Hot

Scotland's Battlefield Band Returns to Tucson.
By Gregory McNamee 

TO JUDGE BY their tour schedules of the last few years, Scotland's Battlefield Band has to be the hardest-working traditional Celtic combo in show business. Based in Edinburgh, the four-member group spends seven months of the year on the road, averaging 50-odd U.S. appearances annually along with dates throughout Europe and Asia. At home, the group works a busy circuit of festivals and other engagements, and logs considerable time in the recording studio.

Music Calling from Norfolk, Virginia, after his 19th performance in 18 days, fiddler John McCusker allows that the constant touring takes a toll. "We've been all over the States, but I can't say that we've seen much, running from gig to gig night after night. We played a little blues club in New Jersey last week. Then we played a big hall in Boston the next night. We're off to San Antonio tomorrow, then to St. Paul to appear on A Prairie Home Companion, then somewhere else after that--ah, yeah, and then Tucson. It gets to where I hear bagpipes in my dreams."

McCusker has been having those pipe dreams since 1991, when he was invited to join the band at the tender age of 17. He replaced founding member Brian McNeill, who had tired of life on the road after 20-odd years and who is now making solo records. Iain MacDonald, a bagpiper and flautist from a Highlands family renowned for its playing, joined in 1991, complementing founder Alan Reid and longtime member Alistair Russell, respectively the band's keyboardist and guitarist.

Founded in 1970, the band has long been a favorite in traditional-music circles. Like their contemporaries Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, its first members were veterans of the '60s British Isles folk revival who combined classic tunes--reels and ballads like "Tramps and Hawkers," "Tuireadh Iain Ruaidh," and "Ril Gan Ainm," all reprised on the band's latest album--and original compositions done in traditional styles. And like their friends in Fairport and Steeleye Span, the Battlefielders weren't bashful about adding modern elements to the classics, which caused a few controversies, especially when Reid introduced electric keyboards to the mix. The result wasn't quite what Bob Dylan experienced when he went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, but it still set off howls from trad purists.

Some of those diehards, to judge by a few conversations I've picked up on the Internet, haven't been overwhelmed by the band's choice of covers, especially their rollicking, bagpipe-driven version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising." The tune has proved to be a crowd-pleaser nonetheless, and, McCusker gladly reports, it has passed muster with a knowing critic: "John Fogerty called our American record company to say he really liked our version."

The band has been enjoying newfound popularity in the wake of two recent productions that have kicked off a wave of interest worldwide in things Celtic. "Riverdance created a huge new awareness of Irish and Scottish music and culture," McCusker says. "After Riverdance came out, we started seeing lots more people at our shows, and everyone we met was talking about it. And people in Scotland started paying more attention to their history after Braveheart came out," he adds. Mel Gibson's 1995 movie has helped spur a resurgent nationalist movement that seeks Scottish independence, a cause that McCusker cheerfully endorses. Still, he keeps his views offstage. "Not that we all have the same opinions about everything, we could be more political, I suppose," he says. "But that would get really boring."

This exposure to larger audiences comes at a time when the Battlefield Band, thanks in part to sheer longevity, has grown to become a major influence on like-minded musicians, mentioned in the same breath as the long-defunct Planxty, the Bothy Band, and other masters of Celtic tradition. The members of the band clearly enjoy their role as elder statesmen, but, McCusker says, are just as happy playing as friendly equals with other folk groups at festivals around the world. At home, among their favorite stagemates these days are the five players of the Glasgow-based Radio Sweethearts, who have scored UK airplay with their rousing version of the country standard "Six Days on the Road."

Traditionalists the Battlefielders may be, but McCusker says that on the current tour he and his mates have been listening to Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and especially Tom Waits, "loads of Tom Waits. Oh, and the Spice Girls. They're great. We're thinking of putting it to their management that the Spice Girls could really use some bagpipe and fiddle accompaniment. We'll be happy to do it for them."

Touring to promote a new live album from a 1996 trio of concerts in Edinburgh, Across the Borders (Temple/Rounder Records), the Battlefielders will play in Tucson on May 9, their first visit in more than three years. "We get a great audience in your town," McCusker says. "And I love Mexican food. I make enchiladas at home in Edinburgh." McCusker promises a mixture of old favorites--"Bad Moon Rising" and "The Green and the Blue" among them--and several new songs that have not yet made it to record.

Scotland's Battlefield Band performs at 8 p.m. Friday, May 9, at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway. Tickets are available at Hear's Music, 2508 N. Campbell Ave., Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave., and the Harp & Shamrock Bar, 7002 E. Golf Links Road. For ticket information, call 881-3947. TW

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