Battlefield Band, Chocolate Church Arts Center, Bath, Maine, USA (November 13, 2003)
The Chocolate Church Arts Center is a beautiful example of American Gothic Revival architecture with an art gallery as well as a theater. As you might expect, the theater is housed in the old sanctuary. Fortunately for the audience, the original pews have been replaced by real theater seats and set on a raked floor to improve visibility. There is a small balcony, probably originally for the organ and choir, which likewise has been rebuilt for the comfort of concert and theater patrons. The medium sized proscenium stage is just right for a group like the Battlefield Band.
"The Batties" from Scotland have been to Maine a number of times over the years, but this was my first opportunity to see them and I wasn't disappointed. Alan Reid (keyboards, vocals), Pat Kilbride (guitar, vocals), Alasdair White (fiddle, viola?), and Mike Katz (pipes, whistles) took to the stage on the first of a two-night engagement with the professionalism that befits an organization celebrating thirty years of existence. Granted, only one member, founder Alan Reid, has been there since the beginning, but he and the early members set up an environment and an attitude that has been carried forth through the years regardless of which musicians were passing through - and many of Scotland's best artists have spent some time with the group.
The Battlefield Band is a friendly lot, and their warmth comes through on stage with talk about the songs, their travels, and some good jokes to boot. Though Reid and Kilbride provided most of the snappy patter, substantial contributions were added by White and Katz. I always award brownie points to performers who take the time to speak to the audience. It helps dissolve the border between stage and audience and opens the door to the performers' human side. The balance of chatter and music seemed just right and with a few sing-alongs in the program everyone seemed to feel at home. The audience was mostly older-somethings, so they didn't outwardly show their enthusiasm in the concert hall as a younger crowd might, but one could tell by the buzz in the lobby and the activity at the CD table that it was a very satisfied group.
The performance started with a drone from Reid's electronic keyboards and the medley built up with the layering of the guitar, fiddle, and pipes, increasing the pace with each tune. Alan made a comment at the end about stringing tunes together and said, "I don't know the names of any of them". I felt comfortable immediately hearing a veteran of the Celtic style say he has trouble remembering the names of tunes!
Has anyone ever researched the popularity of the Celtic medley? Are there other cultures that use the idea as thoroughly as the Scottish and the Irish? The only thing I really know for sure is that it is a requirement of anyone who plays in the tradition. This concert included a number of medleys, all performed to perfection with flawless transitions and each carrying the listener on a journey that was sure to get the circulation moving, if not the whole body. (The crowd of older-somethings didn't get up to dance, but there were definitely some heads bobbing.) On many of the tunes, Katz would start out on a whistle from his collection and eventually move to the pipes. When he moved to pick up the pipes you knew the music was getting ready to shift into high gear and you could feel the listeners prepare for an increase in intensity.
I find Reid's accompaniment style intriguing and a step removed from what one might expect in a "traditional" band. Some of it has to do with the nature of the piano as an instrument, but a lot of it has to do with his approach. It nods to pop, jazz, classical, and rock depending on the selection. He often opted for harmonies and rhythms that pushed the envelope of the traditional arrangement but without losing its soul. Reid and Kilbride worked very well and very closely together as the rhythm section, usually taking care of the responsibilities where lesser musicians would require bass and drums. But some of the material would have benefited from the additional weight. I admit to my inclination toward percussion because the rhythms (hidden and obvious) in Scottish music are so strong, so interesting and can go in so many directions. Maybe it's that primal drum thing that just won't go away.
Most of the instrumental melodies were taken on by Alasdair White and Mike Katz, each a master of his respective trade. In classic Celtic fashion, the fiddle (White), whistles, and pipes (Katz) locked together in unison or harmony as needed. How do they remember all those notes?! White, as the youngest member of the group, had no trouble holding his own with the others. He'll be a monster by the time he's 40. Well, a *bigger* monster. Katz kept the timbre changing with small, medium, and large whistles along with the pipes. As a non-wind player, I'm always amazed at musicians that get such emotion out of the simple whistle and the more demanding pipes. Katz brings out all that can be found in this family of winds.
The only disappointment (and a minor one at that) was the quality of the sound system. It seemed to be lacking in midrange and therefore made the guitar boomy and gave it that high-end clacking sound that happens when the instrument is going direct to the system (as opposed to using just a microphone). The vocals were affected too; the other instruments suffered less so but there were still some issues. I'm not sure whether it had to do with the room, the equipment, the operator, or all of the above. I've certainly heard worse, but it put a little damper on the concert. It's also hard to say how it sounded on stage for the band. If they were having trouble too it might explain the more limited dynamic range overall than I expected given their recordings. Ahhh....life on the road. It's something every traveling musician deals with. Don't let these last comments ever stop you from seeing these folks live!
To keep up with all their comings and goings check out the Batties' Web site at: http://www.battlefieldband.co.uk