Plus one Irish dude keep Celtic music alive in the Battlefield Band
by Kevin Crowe
Mike Katz seems like the kind of guy who should be playing the bagpipes. The long beard, slight highlander accent, and his love of busking in pubs whenever heâ’s home in Edinburgh, Scotlandâ"it all belies the fact that he was born in California.
â“I got into playing the pipes when I was 10 years old,â” Katz says. â“It wasnâ’t until I was much older that I first thought about playing bagpipe music with any other musicians. People usually just played them and didnâ’t think about it.â”
Katz first came to Scotland when he was 18, to continue his undergraduate studies in Edinburgh, and he never left. Now in his mid-30s, Katz is about as Scottish as caber toss. Heâ’s delightful to speak with, his singsong voice equally suited for storytelling and bawdy barroom hijinks. Most of his American affectations have slowly fallen out of habit.
â“Playing bagpipes is a weird thing,â” he continues. â“Itâ’s like smoking, you canâ’t stop.â”
Katz is a musician by trade but heâ’s also a historian of sorts, as he takes his music back in time, fusing and distilling old themes and ideas into something that, with any luck, will still have relevance today.
â“Itâ’s a small world,â” Katz says of the small circle of traditional folk revivalists on the British Isles. â“Everybody knows everybody. Itâ’s easy to find musicians. Itâ’s difficult to get musicians you can work with.â”
Eventually, Katz fell in with one of Scotlandâ’s premier folk bands. The group began more than 30 years ago, long before Katz ever picked up the pipes, somewhere in the Glasgow suburb of Battlefield. The aptly-named Battlefield Band was born when a group of schoolyard chums began playing music inspired by traditional Celtic melodies. Even though there have been many lineup changes over the yearsâ"only one of the founding members, Alan Reid, remainsâ"the sound has never been compromised; it has only matured. And in 1997, when Katz was asked to join the band, he became part of a long tradition of historical preservation as well as artistic experimentation. These antiquated ditties, in spite of their historical significance, continue to be interpreted and reinterpreted, over and over again.
In short, these guys arenâ’t antiquated throwbacks, the kind of schmaltzy folk artists that tend to find a place in your motherâ’s CD collection. The Battlefield Band is part of a musical evolution.
â“This music is of great interest because a lot of American music comes from the same songs and themes,â” Katz says. â“People immigrated and sang these songs. American songs have the same feelings and ideas.
â“Weâ’re all interested in old music. Iâ’m keen on looking up old tunes.... This country has changed a lot in the last 30 years. People were playing music, and learning from their families. Youâ’d have different styles of the same song.â”
The current lineup consists of Alan Reid on the keyboard and guitar, Irishman Sean Oâ’Donnell on the lead guitar, Katz on the pipes and, when necessary, the bassâ"and then thereâ’s Alasdair White, a fiddle prodigy from the Gaelic-speaking island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. White plays just about any instrument, from the banjo to the bodhrÃ¡n.
â“He really goes for it all the time,â” Katz says of Whiteâ’s music. â“Itâ’s right on the edge and heâ’s not afraid to go for things that can end up in total calamity.â”
The newest album, Dookinâ’, gets its name from the Gaelic equivalent of trick or treating. As always, theyâ’re reinterpreting the past in hopes of finding the future of an otherwise staid musical tradition.
â“The notes are really just about 30 percent of the story,â” Katz goes on. â“This stuff isnâ’t written in stone. Itâ’s living music. Itâ’s very much alive.â” He adds: â“The jazz guys like to hear these tunes, because it gives them ideas which they can extrapolate.â”
Who: Battlefield Band
When: Thursday, Oct. 11, 8 p.m.
Where: Laurel Theater
How Much: $20 advance; $21 door
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