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Future Celtic Shock : An Updated Sound From Scotland's Battlefield Band, With No Apologies

March 04, 1995|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The role of the past may not be of critical importance to many of today's young rock groups, but to Scotland's Battlefield Band, the traditional and the contemporary intertwine to define its brand of Celtic music.

"The roots and strengths of our music lie in the past, but we see our mission as bringing it into the modern world," said founding member Alan Reid. "We're playing a living, evolving tradition, not a museum piece. I feel we're defining what our culture is, as well as adding to it."

Playing traditional and original Celtic music (including airs, reels, strathspeys, laments and jigs), the band employs as many as 25 instruments, including guitars, Highland pipes, flutes, whistles and a cittern (a replica of a 16th-Century guitar closely resembling a large mandolin).

And by adding such modern-era instruments as synthesizer, keyboards and drum machine to the mix, the band, which plays tonight at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library as part of its 25th anniversary tour, fuses Celtic traditions with contemporary culture.

Some musical purists cry foul, however, when traditional Celtic sounds are modernized.

"We've been answering that one for years, but what it really comes down to is style and people's own taste," Reid said during a recent phone interview after a tour stop in Boise, Ida. "I think it's healthy to have a variety of tastes, and as long as we're entertaining people, that's enough for us.

"Doubters that don't think using the synthesizer is a valid thing . . . well, they'll go off on their own way while we live our life quite happily. We're not hung up about it."

Changes a few years ago in the quartet's personnel--which also features guitar-cittern player Alistair Russell (a 10-year veteran), piper-flutist Iain MacDonald and fiddler-accordionist John McCusker--also enhanced the contemporary edge, adding a youthful zest to a band refusing to grow mold.

With the 1991 additions of MacDonald and McCusker, the band is reassessing its strengths and redefining its style, said Reid, 45, who lives in the small town of Torrance, about six miles outside the band's home base of Glasgow.

"This lineup is more straight-ahead and traditional, and though it has been a bit of an adjustment, we've settled down with this particular lineup. We're pulling together, going forward and encouraging the new guys to come up with their own unique material."

*

When McCusker signed on with the Battlefield Band, he was all of 17, which could have posed some generation gap problems with his fortysomething musical mates.

"Not at all," replied Reid without hesitation. "The lads coming up today have amazing technique. It blows your mind. Quite apart from his energy, he's such a talented musician, constantly keeping us on our toes. And John's turning into a fine composer, too."

All of the players' creative juices have indeed been flowing since their last release, 1993's "Quiet Days." In the meantime, McCusker and Reid are putting the finishing touches on solo projects, and the foursome's about halfway done recording material for the next Battlefields album, scheduled for release this summer.

"One of the features on the new record will be resurrecting a couple of 30-year-old songs and putting our own stamp on them by reworking some of the lyrics," said Reid, referring to "Tramps and Hawkers" and the melancholy "MacPherson's Lament."

Their next album will also include original compositions from each band member. Reid described themes ranging from Scotland's emigration problems ("The Same Old Story," "The Arren Convict") to a tender, Native American love story ("The Indian Laugh").

While songwriting is valued by the group, it's in the live arena that members lose themselves in the festive spirit of the musical moment. The band draws a multigenerational following, and it's not unusual to see entire families singing, clapping and dancing as contagious rhythms and melodies spill from the stage.

"Celtic music is very direct, even for those without a good understanding of it, like young children," Reid explained. "It's emotive and easy to respond to--whether fast or slow, exciting or mournful. And Celtic music travels very well."

Does Reid, who enjoys folk, country and rock music (and is currently enchanted with the Big Band sound) know the secret behind the group's attraction and longevity?

"It's a lot of luck," he said good-naturedly. "You can't really plan something like lasting 25 years. It either will work or it won't on a basic level. As long as you have something new to offer, then that's the spark to keep going. But it is tough to stay friends and keep a band going. You have to be sensitive of each other's feelings and be adaptable to changes."

* The Battlefield Band performs tonight at 7 and 9 p.m. in the La Sala Auditorium, toward the rear of the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library. Tickets: $5 Information: 493-1752.

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