"We sometimes have this problem in this country, where they kind of look at our music as if it's not foreign enough to have the same merit as music from some other country," says Mike Katz, bagpiper/multi-instrumentalist for the masterful Scottish group the Battlefield Band, speaking in a lightly steeped brogue from his home in Edinburgh. "When you come over here, people see American music as this amazing thing."
Katz should know. This rabbinically bearded musician has family roots in Cleveland and grew up in Los Angeles. But wherever it goes, the Battlefield Band should not be mistaken for anyone's worn-out laundry -- the band's tour log, which ranges from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, is proof enough of that. For three decades, and especially on their latest album, Out for the Night, they play radiant, hearty tunes -- traditional, but buoyed by modern hooks; accessible, but rife with the kind of virtuoso playing that loathes gimmickry.
Unlike some modern interpreters of Celtic sounds, the Battlefield Band never whips the music into a soulless new-age smoothie, but refreshingly, neither are its members a bunch of anachronistic snobs. "If you play music, it's a living thing," says Katz. "It's not like you're trying to reproduce something. I'm very interested in old, old tunes, but I'm not really trying to play them the way that somebody played them 200 years ago."
On Out for the Night, the vitality Katz describes makes for a set as infectious and wide-ranging as the Battlefield Band's live shows. Attesting to the band's unpretentiousness, as well as to Katz's tilted sense of humor, the album starts with "Ms. Dynamite of Benbecula," referring to the London-based hip-hop star and the Hebridean Island, respectively. "Her mother or great-grandmother or something like that is from Benbecula, and there was an article in the paper about Benbecula women," says Katz, quipping, "even if they're from London. That was the first time I had really heard about it, and we thought it was hysterical, so we tried to work it in."
The joke may not translate without explanation, but the music does. It's the first of the album's eight instrumental tracks, which travel through medleys of indelible originals and revived classics. Katz's pipes meld with the prodigious fiddle of 21-year-old Alasdair White, the supple guitar of Pat Kilbride, and the accordion of Alan Reid, yielding landscapes as sharp and trance-inducing as mountain air, or stately and lush as Victorian gardens.
The Battlefield Band also tells stories with words, the most striking of which on this album is "The King's Shilling," penned by Scottish songwriter Ian Sinclair. The song presents itself as a martial anthem, but reveals, through Kilbride's bold vocals, an anti-war message. And while there's no shortage of Celtic tunes about admiring women from afar, Reid's semi-traditional "The Banks of the Carron Water," with cinematic starkness and gorgeous melodic arches, is in the best of the tradition. Katz insists this kind of well-practiced romanticism does not reflect some kind of sensitivity in the Celtic character: "There are a lot of songs that are much more direct and rude," he says, "but they were filtered in the Victorian-morality thing, and that kind of meant that people did things in code." One listen to the moving "Carron Water," however, and you may want to challenge the expert's explanation.
For a band that's been a carousel of personnel changes since its inception in 1969 -- Reid is the remaining original member -- the current lineup is stone-solid. This is due, in part, to the sympathy between Katz's pipes and White's fiddle. "Alasdair's from Lewis, northwest of the Hebrides, and Lewis is not a big fiddling place, it's a big piping place," says Katz. "So although he is a great fiddle player, most of his repertoire is naturally pipe music. When I first met him, we immediately sat down, and without even having to think, we were able to play for a long, long time."
Of course, it's less surprising that a son of the Hebrides should have a knack for the fiddle than that Katz, from the less-than-green lowlands of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, should be a human gale on the pipes. Exposed as a child to bagpipes through his mother's record collection, Katz, 35, was first attracted to the deviant instrument by its hypnotic sounds, but also for much the same reason that other kids pick up an electric guitar. "It's really loud," explains Katz, who went on to master the pipes through formal training, "and you can't underestimate these things for young people."
Katz's story is a remarkable reversal of the sunshine fantasies that draw feckless kids to Southern California from all over the world. "I'm from the suburbs of L.A., which were particularly boring -- more boring then than they are now," says Katz. "I had the opportunity with a pipe band to come over here and stay for competitions for about three weeks when I was 15 or 16, and I thought, 'This is great; much more fun than Los Angeles.'"
He attended the University of Edinburgh and has stayed ever since.
"You know, I've been doing this for 25 years, and I know lots of stuff about it," says Katz, "but I still find it fascinating."