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Battlefield Band - The Road of Tears

Battlefield Band
The Road of Tears
Temple Records COMD 2098

The Battlefield Band, with their thirty year-long career, need no introduction. Their latest offering, however, does, and to neglect the themes and issues surrounding the seventeen tracks on this album would prove a grave injustice to the music. 'The Road of Tears', although resurrecting and rearranging music of bygone times, deals with very current affairs; that of immigration and migration, the very buzz words of today's media. The Battlefield Band serve to remind us, though, that the dislocation of peoples is by no means a recent invention as demonstrated by the opening track, the title track. It sets the scene by focussing on the Highland Clearances the late eighteenth century, as well as references to the 'skin and bone' as a consequence of the Irish Famine, and the forced removal of Native Americans. Inevitably, Alan Reid's lyrics are of utmost importance, clearly defined in the Irish accent of Sean O'Donnell, notably an Irish emigrant himself. The simple fingerpicking of the guitar is later joined by legato fiddle in gentle harmony with the accordion and whistles. Scots heritage is of course alluded to by way of Robert Burns' texts put to music. 'The Slave's Lament' was initially set to the tune of a German hymn by Burns, and the Battlefield Band retain this by the keyboard, whilst the lamentable aspect of the piece is heavily accentuated by the carefully harmonised fiddle, melodica and whistles. 'To A Mouse' is another Burns text put to Alan Reid's music, and is especially enthralling to a non-Scot as it employs the Scottish dialect and vocabulary which the listener is encouraged to translate using an online glossary.

But the album does not merely consist of ballads, laments and poignant protests of injustice at the treatment of Celtic settlers in other lands. The upbeat fiddle-then-pipes-led tune, 'Ely Parker', is Mike Katz's commemoration of Parker, the first Native American to become Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Another political figure is also celebrated in the same set: one a little closer to home in geographical and historical interest. 'Mr. Galloway Goes To Washington' is another Katz reel that honours George Galloway's vocal defeat of the Senate Sub-Committee and their accusations towards his dealings in oil. Whether the reel has the same impact now, in the light of Galloway's most recent publicity, is debatable, but it still gives a wonderful insight into the interests and thoughts of the musicians.

It might be serious, and often sad, content that 'The Road of Tears' is concerned with, but the album is not a monotonous, depressing listen. The songs have the ability to draw in the listener and provoke a deep sense of empathy, whilst the tunes are a nostalgic celebration of people who have made an impact to the lives of many who have been dislocated throughout history. Fundamentally interesting to the listener, though, is the gained knowledge of what the musicians themselves are concerned by, what makes them want to make their music. The extensive CD inlay serves to reiterate this, making the album both a pleasurable and an educational listen.

Sophie Parkes

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This album was reviewed in Issue 67 of The Living Tradition magazine.