BATTLEFIELD BAND – The Producer’s Choice (Temple COMD2108)

Producer's ChoiceIn late 2016 Battlefield Band was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall Of Fame which gave their long-time producer Robin Morton the excuse, if excuse were needed, to celebrate. Hence The Producer’s Choice, nineteen tracks featuring nineteen members of the band plus guest percussionists Donald Hay and Morton himself. Actually I count twenty but I don’t know what Jim Barnes had to do to be excluded from the official count.

The big names who passed through the band’s ranks are legends: Brian McNeill, Alan Reid, John McCusker, Davy Steele, Karine Polwart and, latterly, Ewan Henderson. All are featured but it’s probably the more obscure tracks that excite the most interest. The oldest tracks are ‘The Shipyard Apprentice’ and ‘Silver Spear/The Humours Of Tulla’ from 1977 featuring Reid, McNeill, John Gahagan and Jamie McMenemy followed by ‘Seven Braw Gowns’ from 1979 and featuring the band’s first female vocalist, Jenny Clark. Archie Fisher’s song is one of my favourite tracks in the set alongside McNeill’s ‘Lads O’ The Fair’ and ‘Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin’ featuring one of Scotland’s most underrated singers, Sylvia Barnes. ‘Leaving Friday Harbor’ is one of John McCusker’s finest tunes and I love the way that ‘The Canongate Twitch’ opens with the ‘Pinball Wizard’ riff.

The Producer’s Choice may be an important lesson for bands: let your producer sequence your album. Morton has done a superb job in mixing light and shade, songs and instrumentals, allowing the mood to go one way for a while before switching direction without any sense of dislocation. So Alan Reid’s wonderful song, ‘The Road Of Tears’, is followed by Ged Foley’s ‘Blackhall Rocks’ – stirring yet mournful – and then we’re into the melodic but rousing ‘Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin’.

For those who prefer Battlefield Band in stomping mood the album closes with the live ‘After Hours’ set and I was surprised to find that they have made only three live albums in over forty years – back in the 80s they were one of the hottest festival bands on the scene. Funny how things turn out.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘The Road Of Tears’ from the film Battlefield Band In Concert available from Temple Records.

BATTLEFIELD BAND – Beg & Borrow (Temple COMD2107)

BATTLEFIELD BAND - Beg & Borrow (Temple COMD2107)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.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

Battlefield Band and guests Beg & Borrow

Battlefield Band and guests Beg & BorrowBeg & Borrow is a musical project which explores shared music and song from Scotland and Ireland.  Featuring Scotland’s Battlefield Band, and twelve guest artists, the recordings made during the project are available as an album from Temple Records and you can find out much more about the musicians and the music on this website.

Scotland and Ireland are only separated by twelve miles of sea at their nearest point.  It is not surprising that they are even closer culturally, having influenced, begged, borrowed and stolen from each other over the centuries. Time and again, political, economic and social drivers have seen emigrants move between the countries, settling and absorbing the culture and language, while adding their own to the melting pot.

Today, the cross-fertilisation of these strong cultures is as vibrant as ever, as migrants from both, including many of the musicians featured here, have taken this living tradition far and wide throughout the world.

Label website: Temple Records

Folking at Cambridge Folk Festival 2013 – Day 3

wb3_300Those following this blog will know that it would not be complete without an early morning campsite folking shower report – although those on-site would have had a deluge of their own later in the day when KT “rain goddess” Tunstall took to the stage and opened the heavens – but more on that later. My first shower was at 5.00am, an hour earlier than the day before! Perhaps it was the excitement of the previous 2 days, or perhaps it was just the the showers but Cambridge was not awarding me much sleep.

Breabach danceAs I was finishing the day 2 blog We Banjo 3 took to the main stage, a quintet from Galway playing Irish, bluegrass and American old time music. From what I saw on the #CFF13 @CamFolkFest twitter feed they were definitely making many instant fans and got Saturday stage 1 off to a rousing start. Next up were the mighty Breabach, a tour de force in the Scottish music scene. They had a great array of weaponry on hand including: highland bagpipes, fiddle, guitar, double bass, mandolin, bazouki and even included a set dance by fiddle payer, Megan Henderson.

Saturday Cambs FF CrowdBoth SOC (Son of Clicker – the folking photographer) and I knew that getting to see everything today was going to be tough with all 3 stages in full swing. In fact panic set in and we ran around like headless chickens for a bit until coming to our senses and catching the end of the Festival Session, hosted by Battlefield Band and Feast of Fiddles academic legend Brian McNeil. This was a one off line-up featuring: The Chair, Frigg, The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, Radio 2 young folk award winners Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar, Martin Simpson, Le Vent du Nord and We Banjo 3 again.

Hop and a skip back to the Stage 1 to see Martin Simpson performing a guitar master class wrapped up in his usual exemplary solo set kind of way which included favourites like the you were never any good with money gem Prodigal Son and Jackie and Murphy, a story song of an epic true tale of bravery, donkeys and Gallipoli.

Thea Gilmore CFFManaged to then catch the end of the talented and velvet voiced Heidi Talbot on stage 2 as she left us all going up and down her music tree, Korrontzi from Northern Spain were next up and made you feel part of a Basque hill town knees up for a short while (it was great to see Thea Gilmore dancing along to them back stage). It wasn’t long until Thea took center stage with her full band line up which included producer, husband and multi-instrumentalist Nigel Stonier. Thea definitely showed off her folk credentials by giving us a faultless performance of Pity the Poor Immigrant. Thea then belted out the Radio 2 A listed song Start As We Mean To Go On, before ending with what for me was the highlight of the day, a perfect rendition to the stunning London with her little lad taking center stage on the fiddle. Sandy Denny who wrote the lyrics to this song is my folk heroine and Thea is equally addictive.

There was only one way to come down and that was to head over to the club tent and catch State Of The Union, aka Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams. In the grand tradition of ‘The Special Relationship’, State Of The Union combines the talents of America and England, producing an end result that delighted the club tent crowd with hook-laden songs, fiery and emotional guitar playing and soulful vocals. By this time I had a few jars of Ringwood’s finest Boon Doggle ale and was amusing myself by keeping the girls at the bar on their toes and coming up with different names for it. The firm favourite was Moon Poodle!

Fully Protected & The Moon PoodleThe Moon Poodle was listening as the heavens opened and the poodle piddled down on us as KT Tunstall hit the stage. A great set followed, my favourite being Other Side of the World or dark side of the poodle moon by the Black horse and a cherry tree, no that one actually came later… but don’t blame it on the Sunshine, don’t blame it on the moonlight, blame it on the Boggle. I was past caring as I was now focused on keeping the umbrella in the right place for KT’s Mexican “brella” wave!

I caught a bit of the Mavericks but it was definitely time to head back to Coldham’s before I did myself mischief…

The folkmaster

BATTLEFIELD BAND – Room Enough For All Temple Records COMD2106

Battlefield.Band-Room.Enough.For.AllBattlefield Band never stand still. They’re a forty year old institution but their line-up is fluid – players come, players go and sometimes return. The current twin-bagpipes/twin fiddles set-up of Mike Katz, Ewen Henderson, Alasdair White and Sean O’Donnell has been together for a while – White joined as a teenager over a decade ago – and seems very comfortable.

That’s not meant as a criticism but Room Enough For All could be described as a pastoral album, or whatever the equivalent is for music firmly rooted in the traditions of the western isles. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t spring a few surprises. The record opens with a setting by O’Donnell of Louis MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’, a poem perhaps best remembered now as the starting point for Leon Rosselson’s ‘Brass Band Music’. The poem, written in the 30s, describes the decline of indigenous culture in Scotland and, as the band point out, it applies equally today with only minor updates to the objects of desire. This is a hell of a good time to record it.

Towards the end of the disc is a new setting of Aaron Kramer’s ‘In Contempt’, published in 1950 and included in a selection called In Wicked Times – another piece appropriate to our times. In between are tunes and songs old and new – sparkling dance tunes and wistful airs, and a song about the return of Scots exiles, ‘Farewell To Indiana’ – quiet and reflective but full of optimism.

The multi-instrumental band members don’t need much help. Mike Whellans adds harmonica to one track and producer Robin Morton adds bodhran and bass drum to the final set but that’s all. Listen to the dancing fiddles on ‘The Garron Trotting’ set and you’ll understand why. 

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

PETER NARDINI – Hug (Temple Records COMD2105)

The last time I saw a photo like that depicted on the sleeve of Peter Nardini’s “Hug” CD was one of James Bond (in “Diamonds Are Forever” now you ask) before he was about to kill the character Peter Franks…thought you might be interested in that snippet of trivia. Now, some might find tracks like “Bum” a bit questionable in taste but it’s obvious Nardini couldn’t give a jot and as he proffers his thoughts in scatter-gun style it becomes a blatant case of who gives a toss…take it or leave it. In a way it’s a refreshing philosophy but one that is becoming more prevalent in today’s society and particularly on the ‘acoustic’ scene. Given free reign to spread his wings Battlefield Band’s Mike Katz takes on the role of producer (he also adds guitar, bass, bouzouki, piano, ebow, mandolin, whistles and melodica…please someone stop me before I run out of breath) joined by Ewen Henderson (backing vocals), Ken Donaldson (additional guitar) and the soaring harmonica/percussion of Mike Whellans and fiddler Alasdair White. There, I hope I’ve conjured an image of something to whet your appetite. As you can possibly tell from this scribbling, this is an interesting recording including the drunk’s whispered words of wisdom “A Wish A Wis A Pigeon” with its Lindisfarne styled arrangement and the equally quirky “The Best In Me” with its kind of positive solution to what some (Nardini) would consider awkward questions (a bit like Alistair Campbell on a good day) he seems to at least put the world to rights. This, for those of you wondering is a ‘love song’ of sorts and although a bit skewed is good-time enough to give The Proclaimers a run for their money. An interesting album that won’t be to everyone’s taste but ultimately rewarding if you enjoy a sly look through your own thoughts but didn’t know how to express them [how many times can I use the word ‘interesting’ before it gets boring?].