When a band has released 30+ albums over 40 years, the appearance of a “Best of” is no surprise. In fact, The Producer’s Choice is the fourth compilation from Battlefield Band, and this one is something special. The band’s induction into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame last November was a fitting acknowledgement of the immense contribution they’ve made, taking top quality Scottish traditional music around the world. To mark this honour, the 19 tracks, spanning the whole of the band’s available recorded output, have been chosen by Robin Morton (recently interviewed here), the man who has produced all but the very earliest of the band’s albums. Assembling such an all-encompassing compilation is only possible because, since 1980, the band has remained faithful to Robin’s Temple Records label, a sure marker of how close their relationship has been. Over time, the line-up of the band inevitably and extensively evolved with 23 current and former members and the Hall of Fame induction celebrated all those musicians. Robin’s careful track selection has ensured that 19 of the 23 are represented here. The only absentees are Sandra Lang (an early member of the band before they called themselves Battlefield band), two founder members, Jim Thompson, Eddie Morgan, who left before any recordings were made, and Ricky Starrs, who contributed to the very first album, released on the Breton label, Arfolk, in 1976.
In his sleeve notes, Robin admits he expected to be putting the tracks in chronological order but soon realised that wasn’t necessary. He sees a continuity in the Band’s music when tracks from any period are put alongside those from any other, they work, a sound that was, at the same time, constant and constantly changing – a Zen-like river of sound. This album gives us all an opportunity to judge this whilst dipping into a pool of nostalgia. Well, those of us “of a certain age” can, for many it’s likely they’ll be hearing some of this music for the first time. If you fit that description, welcome it with open arms, you won’t be disappointed.
Rather than concerning himself over chronology, Robin highlights one band member on each track, the person who I think it shows at their best; or perhaps they composed a tune or a song for it. Thank you, Robin, this certainly adds spice to the collection and will surely generate some lengthy debates amongst the band’s long-time fans. It can’t have made Robin’s task any easier, though. How do you deal with the immense contribution from Alan Reid, a founding member in 1969 who stayed, continuously, until 2010? Robin’s choice is The Road of Tears (watch a live performance below), Alan’s excellent song from the 2006 album of the same name. Lyrics link the Highland Clearances, the Irish famine, land grabs from Native Americans and modern wars and migration to highlight man’s continuing inhumanity to man. It’s a song of the highest quality, and Alan’s vocal treats it superbly. However, he plays on all but 2 of the other tracks, reflecting the core position he occupied in the band for so long. On The Shipyard Apprentice, a track taken from 1977’s Battlefield Band, he plays the pedal organ, establishing the atmospheric backing to lyrics that explore the changing perceptions of a Clydeside shipyard worker. 2009’s Zama, Zama… Try Your Luck was the final album on which Alan played and a track from it, Ballarat Jig/Eadar Ì ‘S Leodhas, has him adding Hammond organ to the jig arrangement. From the time in between those two, Robin’s picks have Alan playing the accordion, synthesiser and a wide variety of electronic keyboards. To some extent, Runrig followed in Battlefield Band’s footsteps with the use of keyboards and currently, Skerryvore is notable for having Alan Scobie’s Nord setup as a vital component of the backline, but I’d argue Alan Reid’s keyboard arrangements hold a unique position, helping define the Battlefield sound.
The video below is taken from a full-length film “Battlefield Band in Concert”, available from www.templerecords.co.uk
The fourth founding member was Brian McNeill. His longevity still stands second only to Alan Reid’s, and, even though he left in 1990, he figures on 10 of the tracks. Brian is a true musical polymath, reflected in the vast range of instruments he plays, performances on fiddle, viola, bouzouki, cittern, mandocello, mandolin, concertina and banjo are all in this collection. But add his vocals, song writing and composing skills, and it’s clear his contribution to the first 20 years of the band’s output was outstanding. The song writing and vocal skills are prominent in the track Robin chose as Brian’s highlight. Lads o’ the Fair, from the 1980 album, Home Is Where The Van Is, a fine song that has more than stood the test of time, Brian still sings it regularly, proud that two lines from the lyrics have been carved into a viewpoint above his hometown, and the town of the Fair, Falkirk.
In spite of the great range of Brian’s talents, for many, it’s the fiddle work that stands out from his time in the band. In the late 1970s other band members also contributed fiddle parts, but by 1980, and for the next decade, it was Brian who held down that vital element. Amply demonstrated on the three instrumental sets from that era included in this collection. But when Brian moved on in 1990 it wasn’t a well-established fiddle player that the band recruited, but a 17-year-old taking on his first full-time job as a professional musician. Fortunately, that 17-year-old was John McCusker and over the next 11 years both as a player and a composer he was at the heart of the band’s music. John’s tune, Leaving Friday Harbor is chosen as his showcase, but the music he wrote for Davy Steele’s showcase song, The Last Trip Home, is equally impressive. John’s replacement in 2001, Alasdair White, remains the band’s fiddle player and continues its tradition of first class fiddlers. His featured track is Ballarat Jig/Eadar Ì ‘S Leodhas, his own composition on which he plays the whistles as well as fiddle. It’s a delightful set blending his instruments with Alan’s Hammond organ.
The sound of the pipes has long been an equally vital component of Battlefield Band music, and on five of the tracks, Robin highlights the performance of the piper. So, it’s surprising to be reminded that, until Duncan MacGillivray joined in 1979, the band didn’t include a piper. Since then there has always been at least one, and Highland pipes, Scottish Small pipes and Northumbrian pipes all figure in this collection. The album opens in rousing style with Duncan in the spotlight on his Highland pipes for a set of jigs, Tending The Steer/Sandy Thompson/The Calrossie Cattle Wife. Ged Foley was a contemporary of Duncan and though primarily in the band as a guitarist, his highlight track is a gorgeous slow air, Blackhall Rocks. It features him on Northumbrian pipes with Duncan taking over on guitar. Ian MacDonald took on the rôle of piper for most of the nineties and for his highlight track we have another cracking tune set. The St Louis Stagger, composed by Ian, starts with him on flute but as the set develops with The Ass In The Graveyard and Sandy’s New Chanter the pace gradually picks up through passages with Ian’s pipes and John McCusker’s fiddle weaving around the melody. It’s one of those tune sets in which you hear more with each listen. It comes from the album Quiet Days, hard to imagine the title was an accurate description of the band back then.
In 1998, Mike Katz took over from Ian on pipes, bringing both Highland and Scottish Small pipes, along with an array of other instruments, whistles, bass, bouzouki, guitar. Mike has stayed with the band ever since; he’s now within a couple of years of taking over from Brian McNeill as the second-longest serving member. His highlight track, partly his own composition, has him playing Highland pipes and electric bass. It comes from the first album to feature him, Rain, Hail or Shine. If I needed to take a Battlefield Band instrumental track to my desert island, I think The Canongate Twitch/Steamboat to Detroit/Twenty Pounds of Gin/Break Yer Bass Drone could well be it. Mike also figures prominently on the track Robin chose to highlight Ewen Henderson’s time in the band. He composed Tynes in Overtime! jointly with Mike, its 2/4 time signature giving it a rather more stately feel than the other pipe tunes. Not only are both sets of Highland pipes featured but Ewen also doubles up with Alasdair White on fiddles and whistles. Between 2011 and 2014, Ewen recorded excellent music with both Mànran and Battlefield.
Over the life of the band, around 2/3rds of the 23 members contributed to vocals, and many deserve specific mention. Jamie McMenemy was in the band for a couple of years in the late 70s. He’s the singer on The Shipyard Apprentice, and the combination of his voice with Alan’s pedal organ, John Gahagan on concertina and Brian’s viola produces an arresting version of a song whose lyrics are already rich in emotion from the post-war decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde. Alistair Russell’s 13 years in the band place him fourth in the longevity stakes, and during those years he was a mainstay vocalist and guitarist. Robin highlights him on the closing track, After Hours, the album’s only live performance, coming from Home Ground, one of three live albums the band have released.
Over its history, Battlefield Band hasn’t been an entirely male preserve. In early recordings, 1979-80, Jenny Clark and then Sylvia Barnes, added not only their voices but also guitar and dulcimer. Jenny leads vocals on Seven Braw Gowns, a rather pitiful tale of a lady who can’t find a suitor in spite of all her prized possessions. The words can be traced back to 1724, but Duncan MacGillivray provided the tune. Sylvia gives us, Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin, a Burns song, rather autobiographical given his reputation, and put to the tune of another Burns song, Dainty Davie. Twenty years later and the band again had a female presence, Karine Polwart joined, and Shepherd Lad has been taken from the album Happy Daze. A traditional tale of skinny dipping with the not so traditional result that the naked maid gets the better of a bashful lad. Karine adapted the words to a tune written by John McCusker.
Battlefield Band hasn’t necessarily been an all-Scottish affair either. Ged Foley and Alistair Russell came across the border from North East England for their stints with the band, though Alistair did come from a thoroughly Scottish family. Pat Kilbride brought a distinctly Irish voice when he briefly joined the band in 1978, The Batchelor perfectly capturing the sound from that time. Pat returned 2002 – 2005 and after his departure the band’s current lead vocalist, Sean O’Donnell took his place, cementing the Irish connection. Sean’s highlight track, Lovers and Friends has him taking lead vocal and guitar with bouzouki and fiddles from Mike Katz, Ewen Henderson and Alasdair White. A quietly political song with the excellent couplet, there’s more friendship poured out in a bottle of stout than you’ll find in statute or sermon.
Robin Morton’s admiration for the band in all its many incarnations has driven the assembly of this collection; snapshots of 40 years of musical development that so effectively chart the band’s evolution. The Battlefield sound has always been thoughtfully respectful of the tradition, yet a good proportion of the music has been written by band members. This combination has helped ensure the survival of the band and The Producer’s Choice is a superbly fitting celebration of it.
The Producers Choice is out now on Temple Records
listen to clips from Battlefield Band – The Producer’s Choice
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