After more than 40 years of music-making, Battlefield Band has become one of the most respected, influential units in Scotland's folk establishment. The band has reinvented itself more than once, and fans get a chance to catch them in the midst of another personnel change this weekend.
When Battlefield Band plays Festival Place today, it will have five instead of the usual four musicians, reflecting an impending switch of musical chairs. The group's only remaining original member, Alan Reid, 60, is leaving at the end of this year, but the veteran keyboard, accordion and synth player, singer and chief songwriter is still on board for one last tour, along with new member Ewen Henderson, 23, who sings and plays fiddle, bagpipes, whistles and piano.
They've made one final album as a quintet, and you'll hear tunes from that new disc, Zama Zama ... Try Your Luck (Temple Records).
"Having a few generations involved in the band has always enriched what we do," observes Mike Katz, 41. A master of the large and small pipes, bass and guitar, he's been with Battlefield Band since 1997, along with other current members, Alasdair White (fiddle, banjo, bouzouki and bodhran), and Irish-born Sean O'Donnell (vocals, guitar). Katz feels the age range has also given them wider audience appeal and a more versatile sound.
Since their modest start in the Glasgow suburb of Battlefield in 1969 and a decade or so of searching for their own identity, the band has become a proud example of how to update the folk tradition, using fresh combinations of old and new instruments, mixing vocal and instrumental tunes, and traditional pieces with their own compositions. The themes in their songs are also often in step with the times. A continuing thread on Zama Zama concerns the pursuit of wealth.
"We came up with the idea of collecting songs about gold and gold mining, but it grew into something bigger. Luckily or unluckily, the whole banking debacle happened at the same time, and all kinds of crazy stories started coming out."
Over 14 tunes, the group covers a lot of history. For instance, a number about the robber barons of old is followed by Bernie's Welcome To Butner, a song about New York financial scam artist Bernie Madoff going to prison.
The title Zama Zama is a reference to pirate gold miners in South Africa.
Katz says few groups have been as important as Battlefield Band in focusing Scots back toward their own folk history, starting with the way they brought bagpipes into a concert-band context around 1979.
"Thirty years ago almost everyone was looking out to America and other places, rather than paying attention to their own music. I think the Irish bands like Bothy Band and Planxty, and then the Scottish bands like Battlefield Band and Tannahill Weavers made young people realize there was this huge richness of culture. We showed them that it's culturally valid."
Tonight's show at Sherwood Park's Festival Place is at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30, $34 or $36, from the box office (780-449-3378), or online at festivalplace.ab.ca.
Saskatchewan's rocking Rattle Snake Romeo pulls in this weekend at the Commercial Hotel's Blues On Whyte room, Sunday through Tuesday. Edmonton's own Big Hank and his Fist Full Of Blues take over the same venue Nov. 24 to 27.
Meanwhile, over at Rusty Reed's House of Blues at 124th Street and 118th Avenue, you can catch The Rault Brothers Friday and Saturday. Alberta's great guitar ace Amos Garrett plays there Nov. 26 and 27.
Garrett is also set to lead his jazz trio at the Yardbird Suite Dec. 4., while Chicago blues singer Shirley Johnson will head up two nights at the Yardbird Dec. 10 and 11.
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Battlefield Band plays musical chairs
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