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 – 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:

Older Than My Old Man Now – Loudon Wainwright III

As his new album’s title relates, Loudon Wainwright III is Older Than My Old Man Now — his old man, of course, being the late Loudon Wainwright, Jr., the esteemed Life Magazine columnist and senior editor.

“Singer-songwriter contemporaries of mine have recently taken to writing memoirs and autobiographies,” notes Wainwright. “I decided I would try to tell the story of my swinging life in a three and one-half minute song.”

He’s speaking specifically of the album’s lead track “The Here & the Now,” which features jazz guitar great John Scofield and backing vocals from all four of Wainwright’s children — Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Lucy Wainwright Roche and Lexie Kelly Wainwright — as well as two of the three moms, Suzzy Roche and Ritamarie Kelly. But the album as a whole reflects the stage he’s reached in his life, and as he so wryly puts it, the “death ‘n’ decay” that inevitably accompanies it.

One track which cuts directly to the issue, “The Days That We Die,” remarkably brings together three generations of Wainwright males.

“My Dad wrote the recitation, and I’m singing with No. 1 son Rufus,” says Wainwright. “That’s my grandson Arcangelo Albetta — Martha’s kid — I’m walking with on the beach photo that’s part of the CD artwork. Not only that, but Loudon Wainwright I is referenced in the title track, so in fact there are five generations represented on the album!”

Wainwright’s father, who died in 1988, also wrote the recitation that introduces the album’s title track. “Please believe me when I say that collaborating with my long gone progenitor at this late date felt pretty damn big,” says his son, who also lifted the opening line of “Double Lifetime” from one of the notebooks that his father used to carry around with him to write in.

Another key family member who is no longer living, Wainwright’s ex-wife Kate McGarrigle (the mother of Rufus and Martha), is represented by “Over The Hill” — “the one song we wrote together, way back in 1975.” Martha Wainwright accompanies her father vocally on the track, as does multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Chaim Tannenbaum, his “musical sidekick and sounding board” for over 40 years. Suzzy Roche returns to sing on “10,” and even Wainwright’s lab/pit/chow mix Harry, who’s been featured (in the lyrics) in a number of his songs in the last few years, appears on “Ghost Blues” and the bonus download track for the album “No Tomorrow.”

But Older Than My Old Man Now, which was produced by Dick Connette (producer of Wainwright’s 2009 Grammy-winning High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project), boasts stellar participants other than family.

“One voice singing a lot about death ‘n’ decay can be a bit wearing so Dick and I brought in other singers to help with the heavy lifting,” says Wainwright. “The venerable Chris Smither testifies with me on ‘Somebody Else,’ for which High Wide & Handsome alum Rob Moose wrote the string arrangement. Barry Humphries, a.k.a. Dame Edna Everage, does a duet with me on ‘I Remember Sex.’ He and I were romantically linked in two episodes of Ally McBeal a few years back, and I’ve been besotted ever since. There is no greater living and performing legend than Barry Humphries, for my money. And he’s even older than I am!”

Older than Wainwright, too, was another personal hero who guests on Older Than My Old Man Now — folk music legend and 2 time Grammy winner Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

“After making pilgrimages to Jack’s shows for half a century now, for me to sing and play with him on an album was nothing short of a dream come true,” he says, referring to “Double Lifetime.” “Recording this song with him — perhaps my foremost musical father figure — was a gas.”

One other old friend is noteworthy: Robin Morton, a founding member of legendary Celtic group the Boys of the Lough.

“We’ve known each other since the early 1970s when we were young hell raising/up-chucking Turks on the folk music scene together,” recalls Wainwright. “It was great fun to begin recording Older Than back in May at Robin’s studio in the tiny Scottish village of Temple — just a wee bit south of Edinburgh.”

And from High Wide & Handsome also came the likes of guitar and banjo player Matt Munisteri, cellist Erik Friedlander, pianist Paul Asaro and bassist Tim Luntzel. Together, the new album’s personnel create song treatments ranging from basic guitar-and-vocal to sophisticated string settings — together with some swinging funk provided by Scofield.

Loudon Wainwright III came to fame when “Dead Skunk” became a Top 20 hit in 1972. Born in Chapel Hill, N.C. in 1946, he had studied acting at Carnegie-Mellon University, but dropped out to partake in the Summer of Love in San Francisco.

He wrote his first song in 1968, “Edgar” (about a lobsterman in Rhode Island) and was soon signed to Atlantic Records by Nesuhi Ertegun. Clive Davis lured him to Columbia Records — which released “Dead Skunk.” His recording career now consists of 25 albums, also including last year’s five-disc retrospective 40 Odd Years and his most recent studio album 10 Songs For The New Depression (2010).

Wainwright’s songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Rufus Wainwright, and Mose Allison, among others. He has collaborated with songwriter/producer Joe Henry on the music for Judd Apatow’s hit movie Knocked Up, written music for the British theatrical adaptation of the Carl Hiaasen novel Lucky You, and composed topical songs for NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered and ABC’s Nightline.

Also an accomplished actor, Wainwright has appeared in films directed by Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Christopher Guest, Tim Burton, Cameron Crowe, and Judd Apatow. He has also starred on TV in M.A.S.H. and Undeclared, and on Broadway in Pump Boys and Dinettes.

Made me howl with laughter one minute and then emotionally take me to places were other CD’s fear to tread…

Darren Beech