The idea behind this album is simple but the execution is rather less so. The Straits of Moyle are just twelve miles wide which means that on a clear day you can stand on the Mull of Kintyre and see the Ulster coast. Legends are full of conflicts between the Scots and the Irish but there was also trade and, inevitably, music. Beg & Borrow celebrates the musical trade between the two countries.
Battlefield Band is now a trio and well illustrate the international nature of Celtic music. Piper Mike Katz is from Los Angeles, fiddler Alasdair White from Lewis and singer/guitarist Sean O’Donnell from Derry. They have recruited twelve special guests to celebrate this global musical community. Furthest flung is Australian piper Barry Gray and the nearest to home is Robin Morton who, although actually Irish, is the boss of Temple Records and the studio in which he produced the record and plays bodhran. Other famous names are Christine Primrose, Alison Kinnaird, Mike Whellans and Nuala Kennedy.
In contrast to the modern style of bands giving their sets short, snappy titles the tracks here are billed rather more formally so we begin with ‘Reels’, ‘6/8s’, ‘Song’, ‘Slow Air & Jig’ and so on. I’m no expert but I suspect this was how they would be noted on dance cards in the 18th and 19th centuries – Scottish country dancing was the ballroom dancing of the period after all. There is sometimes something rather formal about the style of playing, too, although the record opens with a robust set of Irish reels featuring the melodeon of Leo McCann. The 6/8 set – ‘Drunken Man’s Frolic/We Will Go Merrily Sailing/Charlie Over The Water’ is rather more stately.
My favourite tunes are the strathspeys, possibly because we don’t hear them very much this far south. Their rhythm is quite different from the jig and the reel and although the dance is described as being stately and often slow the tunes themselves are bouncy and expressive. Of course Mike Whellans’ contributions with the moothie and Jim Kilpatrick’s snare and bass drums add uniquely to the tracks on which they appear and Alison Kinnaird gets an almost solo on ‘Ellen’s Dreams’, a tune written by her husband, Robin Morton.
The first song we hear is ‘The Blantyre Explosion’ powerfully sung by Sean O’Donnell with the addition of a Gaelic verse by Christine Primrose. I would have liked to hear more of her on this track but later she is joined by Nuala Kennedy for ‘An Gille Mear’ which she translated from Irish Gaelic to Scots Gaelic. That seems a bit esoteric to me but it’s a lovely track. Christine returns the compliment on Nuala’s song ‘Mo Bhuachaill Dubh Dhonn’.
Beg & Borrow is an album you have to give some time to. The music here is something over and above the usual mix of Celtic music while still being firmly rooted in the traditions of Scotland and Ireland. While many musicians try to push the envelope, Battlefield Band and their friends have found plenty to explore in its dustier corners.
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Artists’ website: www.battlefieldband.co.uk