Live at the Stanhope House
- April 22, 1997
By Avi Ziv
"Pagans have arrived upon our shores!" called Tucker - the master of ceremonies, inflecting his voice evangelically as the four members of the Battlefield Band took their places on stage. Behind them, a large Coors Light sign advertised the upcoming Texas Blues of "Smokin' Joe Kebec and B'Nois King". The Battlefield Band is on the tail end of an extensive world tour stretching from Hong Kong to the US via places such as Sri Lanka, Syria and Egypt.
I had three worries about the upcoming concert: The venue - advertised as the "premiere blues club of NJ" - evoked images of cheap beer, smoke, and loud music. How would one of Scotland's most respected acoustic folk bands, sound in a place like this? I also had concerns about the use of synthesizers. The accordion is the closest instrument to a piano to be heard in traditional Celtic music and even then it is used mostly for soloing. To my ears, most attempts at integrating keyboards into this sort of music end up sucking the precious space between the notes. My third worry was the absence of Brian McNeill, who had captivated audiences with his multi-instrumental wizardry and social commentary.
John McCusker has been growing into the huge shoes McNeill left behind. At age 24, John is already noted for his fiddle skills and prodigious writing. Swaying with eyes closed, he ripped through jigs and reels with the flair of youth and the passion of a soul man. Occasionally John would switch to the Cittern (an ancient string instrument), energizing the band with mind-bending licks and chopping power chords - the instrument hanging way down low on his hip. McCusker is the realization of the band's motto: "Forward with Scotland's Past".
Giving the band it's most recognizable Scottish hue is Iain MacDonald (ex Osian member) who spent most of the evening standing statue-like, his large chest pumping air into a set of bagpipes. With utmost efficiency, Iain's fingers fluttered over the sound holes, gracing the entire room with the cry of the ages. Occasionally, flutes and penny whistles appeared and sparkled above the band, although Iain's use of electronic reverb on the flutes was excessive. MacDonald also pulled off an inventive Bohdran (a Celtic frame drum) solo as part of a duet with McCusker.
Alister Russel and Alan Reid (the only original member of this 27-year-old band) provided most of the vocals. The songs were somewhat sentimental ballads, steeped in the sound of the 60's folk revival. Still, when was the last time you've heard C.C.R's "Bad Moon Rising" rock the house with bagpipes and a fiddle? Much to my delight, Reid's percussive keyboard playing not only blended nicely with the band, but acted as a rhythm instrument, taking the place of the traditional Bodhran. Blues clubs do not normally host Celtic bands, but my concerns were drowned in a sea of ale and the sound of acoustic instruments reverberating throughout the 200-year-old wood-panelled space.
You can find most of the music from this concert tour on the Battlefield Band's recent live CD "Across the Borders" on the Temple Records label. Full discography, tours and other useful information can be found on the Battlefield Band's internet site which is linked below:
here to listen to an audio clip from the new album, Across