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Seven Nations blends Celtic sounds with rock

Stewart Oksenhorn

When Kirk McLeod decided to throw some of his Celtic ancestry into his music, he did it largely for the novelty.

“I was living in New York City, and I had moved there to pursue music and record. But I was doing the rock ‘n’ roll thing,” said McLeod. “I started using bagpipes just to stand out, because no one else was doing that.”

For McLeod, though, the use of bagpipes, and then Irish fiddle and other Celtic flourishes, can hardly be said to be a forced affectation. An Air Force brat who moved from state to state and country to country growing up, McLeod was instilled with his parents’ strong ties to their Irish/Celtic heritage wherever they lived. His mother and sisters played in traveling Celtic music groups when McLeod was young. Though he first started playing American pop music – “anything and everything that was on the radio,” he said – on guitar and piano, summers from the age of 12 on were spent at a traditional bagpipe school in the mountains of North Carolina, where McLeod “lived, ate and breathed the bagpipes.”

After moving to New York in the late ’80s, and following two years playing music at Disney’s Epcot Center, McLeod finally began to draw on those summers of piping. “Believe it or not, it was surprisingly late,” McLeod said of the introduction of his Celtic influences into the American pop music he was writing. “I thought, `I’ve been playing these two types of music my whole life. Why not put them together?”

The fusion was obvious, perhaps, but not simple. “There was no music, no pop music, that had these instruments in it,” said the 35-year-old McLeod, who as a lad had lived for two years in England. “I had to learn to write pop music for the bagpipes. It took a little while.”

When McLeod was satisfied that the styles were blending properly, he began to assemble a band. He called on his boyhood friend, bassist Struby, to join him in New York, where they formed Clan na Gael. Through recommendations from other musicians, the two found three more band members – drummer Ashton Geoghagan, bagpiper Scott Long and fiddler Dan Stacey – all of whom, though raised in the United States or Canada, had Irish and Celtic blood, and strong ties to their Northern European heritage. McLeod, the group’s lead singer, guitarist, and principle songwriter, gave the band the name Seven Nations, after the seven historic regions – Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Brittany, Cornwall and Galicia – of the Celtic world.

From the band’s first gig, in the mid-’90s, McLeod saw the impact that the Celtic instruments could have on an audience. “Our first show with the pipes was at Fordham University in the Bronx,” he said. “And as soon as we started tuning the pipes, the crowd went wild. So we knew we were onto something.”

The five-piece Seven Nations began playing clubs around New York, and started spinning out a series of independent CDs. At the same time they were building their name as a hot club act, Seven Nations also became a fixture on the Celtic festival scene. After they played to a crowd of some 40,000 at the Edinburgh Festival, they became the first American band invited to a return engagement at the renowned gathering.

Based in the Orlando area since 1996, Seven Nations has been touring almost nonstop across the country. Their latest tour brings them to Aspen, where they make their local debut Monday, Jan. 29, at the Double Diamond.

Last year, after totaling over 150,000 sales from their seven independently released CDs, Seven Nations made the jump to the corporate world. The 2000 CD, simply titled “Seven Nations,” was released on Q Records, a division of Atlantic. The band was also signed to a sponsorship deal with Dewar’s Scotch, an association which has the band featured in print ads for the Dewar’s brand.

Not surprisingly, the marketing minds at Atlantic and Dewar’s play up the Celtic connection of Seven Nations. The Dewar’s ads and the bands promotion photos feature the musicians dressed in kilts, even though the band had given up on Celtic regalia as their standard stage attire a while back. On “Seven Nations,” the sound leans more toward American rock – a pleasing meshing of roots and modern sounds – than it does toward Old World Celtic music. While the album does feature several medleys of traditional Celtic tunes, the oft-repeated description of the group – the Dave Matthews Band in a kilt – is not that far off.

Still, McLeod and his mates try not to make the sound fit into any marketing scheme. The last thing McLeod wants is for Seven Nations to get put in a Celtic-rock box, and limit the band’s audience to those interested primarily in the Celtic side of the sound.

“Any stereotype, if you let yourself get boxed in by it, can be a barrier,” said McLeod. “It’s almost a mission now not to put any labels on it.

“One of my favorite gigs was playing in Puerto Rico, in the pouring rain, to about a thousand people. It had nothing to do with the Celtic aspect, or the traditions of the music. It was just the music.

“I’d love to do with this music what Bob Marley did with reggae – make it universal. Break down the divisions, and make it something for everyone.”


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