Battlefield Band and Guests 'Beg and Borrow', Boston Irish Reporter ReviewBattlefield Band and Guests, "Beg & Borrow"
Reviewed by Sean Smith in the Boston Irish Reporter, Feb 2016
That Ireland and Scotland have many common threads in their respective music traditions is one of those truisms people seem to know intuitively, yet can often overlook or under-appreciate. So a recording project specifically dedicated to pointing this out is welcome indeed, especially considering the talent assembled: Scotland's venerable Battlefield Band, with 12 special guests (the 12 is no random number - it's the number of miles between Ireland and Scotland at their closest distance from each other) from the Irish and Scottish music scene, including New York City's Tony DeMarco, Nuala Kennedy, Christine Primrose, Alison Kinnaird, Aaron Jones and Mike Whellans. Also among them is Robin Morton, who is not only the album's producer and founder of the Temple Records label through which it's been released, but also a former charter member of the Boys of the Lough - a band founded on the principle of Irish-Scottish musical ties.
There are more than a few revelations on "Beg & Borrow" (the title is a sly reference to the interplay between the Irish and Scottish traditions), especially for those whose dominant impression of the Battlefield Band is their 1980s-90s incarnations, when they were known, among other things, for pairing synthesizers and other electric keyboards with Highland bagpipes and fiddle, and for covering Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" - all of which they pulled off with singular taste and ingenuity. The group has had a complete turnover in personnel over time – the last remaining co-founder Alan Reid, player of those aforementioned keyboards, departed in 2010 - and is now a trio of some geographic diversity: Sean O'Donnell (vocals, guitar) from Derry; Alasdair White (fiddle, banjo, whistle) from the Isle of Lewis; and Mike Katz (bagpipes, whistle, guitar, bouzouki, bass) from Los Angeles. These three prove to be worthy successors to the Battlefield Band legacy, and along with their guests, have judiciously assembled a collection of tunes and songs that demonstrate very well the dimensions of the Irish-Scottish musical bond, as explained in the invaluable liner notes.
Some connections are fairly obvious and straightforward: For example, the four-reel set with Co. Tyrone melodeon player Leo McCann (formerly of the Scottish band Malinky) is a nod to John Doherty, the noted fiddler from Donegal, which has well-documented Scottish influences in its music; another set with McCann includes tunes taken from Allen Feldman and Eamonn O'Doherty's "The Northern Fiddler," a landmark collection of tunes and reminiscences from musicians in Donegal and Tyrone; Kennedy and Primrose, meanwhile, team up for a gorgeous rendition of the classic Jacobite song" An Gille Mear (The Gallant Lad)," originally in Irish Gaelic but translated here by Primrose into Scottish Gaelic, a lament for Bonnie Prince Charlie – whose efforts at securing Scottish independence were viewed with no small sympathy by many Irish. Primrose also sings her Gaelic translation for a verse in O'Donnell's performance of "The Blantyre Explosion," about the horrendous Scottish mining disaster that claimed the lives of Irish as well as Scottish laborers.
Other instances of the Irish-Scottish rapport on ‘Beg & Borrow’ are perhaps more obscure, and quite fascinating. A set featuring Whellans on harmonica begins with the well-travelled "McCarthy's Quickstep," collected by Co. Kerry piper James Goodman but also found in Scotland, England and even the US ("The Gettysburg March") and then proceeds – with Whellans switching to rhythm behind Katz's small pipes – to "The Drunken Piper," a mainstay for Scottish pipers and dance band musicians but also played by Doherty (his name crops up a lot here) as a march. Fiddler John Martin (who played with pioneering 1970s Scottish band Ossian) cameos on a medley that opens with "The Braes of Mar," a strathspey in Scotland that may be recognizable to Irish listeners as "Love Will You Marry Me" or "Some Say the Devil's Dead"; it's also played as a polka in the south of Ireland and has a Quebecois relation, "La Belle Catherine." DeMarco and harmonica player Don Meade unite with the band for a Sliabh Luachra version of a tune found in Ulster but originating from Scotland - fiddler Kevin Burke translated the title from Irish as "The Whole Chicken in the Soup" - then proceed into a couple of reels, the first of which is the familiar "Fairy Reel," associated with the likes of Nathaniel Gow and Willie Clancy. Morton shows up on bodhran and backing vocals for "The Mickey Dam," a song - about a beleaguered Irishman's response to workplace harassment- that's been a fixture in Glasgow's Irish community.
Of course, you're certainly free to pass up the musicological dimension of the album and just listen to it for its own sake. But a little education can be fun, you know - and it can be quite enlightening to realize that the tune or song you're sure was thoroughly Irish was also enjoyed by the tartan-clad folks across the Irish Sea
You can learn more about the project at www.begandborrow.net or purchase the Beg and Borrow album direct from Temple Records