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Famed Scottish band returns to F.H. with a creative new album
The band walks onto the stage and the crowd erupts in cheers and applause. As the music begins, groupies up on the mezzanine clap and stomp. The first song leaves the musicians and the audience with pumped-up blood pressure and a bit of sweat.
This is not a rock concert at the Paramount. This is the Battlefield Band at San Juan Community Theatre — Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
“I’ve only missed them once or twice,” said Lynda Guernsey, who counts herself a groupie. “No tricks, no gimmicks, just fine music.”
She added, “They do a great job with storytelling songs. They have funny stories. They’re all-around nice folks. They’ve been coming here for so long, they’re family.”
For the 11th or so time (even fans have lose count) the Scottish band has included Friday Harbor on its U.S. tour — this one, to promote its latest album, “Dookin’,” as in dookin’ or dunkin’ for apples.
The tour is as fast-paced as a jig or reel: from Nov. 5 at Wolf Trap to Nov. 21 at Port Angeles, with nine shows in four states in between.
This band performs internationally and fills much larger venues than 285-seat San Juan Community Theatre. Why such affinity for Friday Harbor, for whom the internationally-known band penned a song that became an album title?
“There’s various reasons,” said songwriter/keyboardist Alan Reid, a member of the band since 1969. “Going to Friday Harbor from Anacortes, it reminds me of the Inner Hebrides, particularly the Isle of Mull. When we’re in the channel on the ferry, it’s easy to get disoriented as to where exactly we are.
“Second, we’ve always received a warm welcome from the people in Friday Harbor. It’s virtually a sellout every time we play there.”
Merritt Olsen, executive director of the San Juan Community Theatre, said the affinity is mutual. “This is a phenomenon I walked into,” said Olsen, who joined the theater in 2000. “They must have sealed the deal on their first visit. They’re genuine, they’re incredibly talented. Alan’s ability as a songwriter is what really resonates.”
Reid explains the song and album, “Leaving Friday Harbor”:
“John McCusker (who later toured with Mark Knopfler) wrote ‘Leaving Friday Harbor.’ We were on the ferry and as it pulled away, we realized we were going away from this pretty, relaxed community, going back to the big bad mainland. Friday Harbor is a very comfortable place to visit.”
For Celtic music fans, the Battlefield Band is the real deal (34 albums, box sets and CDs since the 1970s). “What the internationally renowned Irish band The Chieftains has done for Irish music, Battlefield Band is doing for the music of Scotland,” Billboard reported.
In “Dookin’,” fans get a mix of humor, sentiment, tradition and tribute, as well as new works that test their diversity and sophistication of musicianship.
“Dookin’ for Beetroot” was inspired by an eccentric musician in an Edinburgh pub who had “applied her lipstick in a liberal way,” prompting Battlefield Band piper Mike Katz’s wife to suggest she had been “dookin’ for beetroot.” Reid’s keyboard lends a jazzlike touch.
Bandmate Sean O’Donnell sings “I’m Going to Set You Free,” a John Spillane-written number that could find itself on Celtic and pop charts.
Other songs will sound familiar: “My Luv’s Like a Red, Red Rose,” one of Robert Burns’ best-loved songs; and the great Irish piper Willie Clancy’s “Kitty Got a Clinking Coming from the Fair.”
Islanders will connect with Reid’s folk song, “Gathering Storm”: “Fisher boats rock in the harbour / blow, hear the winds blow / clouds are hovering low in the sky / the weather is turning this morning / blow, hear the winds blow.” In another time, the lyrics could have a political message; even the artist suggests of his song, “There could be something more to it.”
“Paddy Moloney’s Welcome to Scotland” is a tribute to Moloney, the uilleann piper and leader of The Chieftains.
While an earlier album, “Road of Tears,” was a theme album that gave reviewers something to hang it on, “Dookin’ “ “is more straightforward, with a sprinkling of older stuff as well. It’s getting some pretty good reviews,” Reid said.
Regarding the appeal of Celtic music, Reid said, “There’s something intrinsic in Celtic music that travels well. In all indigenous folk music, there’s an extreme of emotion that’s very infectious, very exciting, very joyous. On the other hand, it can be soulful, bluesy, mournful. It has the ability to touch people.”
About the band: Reid’s family is from Scotland and Ireland and he has relatives in Australia, Canada and the U.S. Piper Mike Katz’s family is a Scottish transplant from California. Fiddler Alasdair White is Scottish and English, and has relatives in New Zealand and the U.S. Guitarist and vocalist Sean O’Donnell is from Ireland now living in Scotland.
The band members’ own histories contribute to the authenticity of “Road of Tears,” Reid’s song about the immigration experience, voluntary and forced. The song touched the emotions and sensitivities of many listeners of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.”
Devoted as they are to Celtic music, the band knows how to cut loose. Guernsey remembers when the band played “Proud Mary.” “With the bagpipes, it was pretty amazing. They did it just to show they can do that kind of music.”
Tickets, etc.: Battlefield Band, San Juan Community Theatre, Nov. 14 and 15, 7:30 p.m. $27. Call 378-3210. Visit www.sjctheatre.org.