Seven Nations
Long's Park, Lancaster, Pa.
(30 July 2000)

The concert began, oddly enough, with the opening track from Ashley MacIsaac's latest CD, Helter's Celtic, which blasted from the speakers as the members of Seven Nations took the stage. After a moment's shuffling, the canned music cut out and the band took over, launching into a frantic opening set full of pipes (singer/guitarist Kirk McLeod joining with piper Scott Long for a doubly big sound) and the crazed juggernaut that was fiddler Jon Pilatzke.

Pilatzke dominated much of Seven Nations' July 30 performance at Long's Park -- which is somewhat ironic, since Pilatzke isn't a part of the band.

The last time I saw Seven Nations on stage, Georgia native Neil Anderson was the piper and there wasn't a fiddler. Now, Anderson is gone, replaced by Long, and Canadian fiddler Dan Stacey has joined their ranks. But Stacey was off stepdancing with Altan in Hollywood during Seven Nations' Lancaster show. Pilatzke, perhaps taking advantage of this opportunity to tour briefly with a known band, seemed determined to make an impression on the crowd of thousands sprawled through the park. His technique worked; his fiddling was good, but it wasn't enough to make me sit up and shout "Wow! Who's the guy on the stringbox?!"

In fairness, that had a lot to do with the sound; Pilatzke's fiddle could rarely be heard cleanly over the pipes, guitar, bass and drums. At times, I only was sure he was playing because I could see his bow arm sawing up and down; the band's sound man should take lessons from other bagpipe-and-fiddle bands like Enter the Haggis and Clandestine. And, sadly, his fiddle slipped out of tune just as he started a solo set late in the concert, spoiling what would probably have been his shining moment. But Pilatzke's non-stop stomping, careening around the stage like a dervish and energetic, loose-limbed stepdancing certainly caught my attention.

It was a perfect summer concert evening in the park. The afternoon's oppressive heat had dissipated, as had the threat of rain. A cool breeze and cloudy, non-threatening skies made for an excellent sit-back-and-listen experience. At least 8,000 people turned out for the free show, and most of those who'd never heard Seven Nations before came away impressed by the band's rockin' sound.

Unfortunately, many of us who knew the band in its pre-1999 glory days were disappointed.

The band provided plenty of favorites from albums old and new, including "Big Dog," their cover of "Under the Milky Way," "Twelve," "Seeds of Life" and "All You People." "Scream," a perpetual favorite, ended with McLeod and Long pipe-marching into the midst of the cheering crowd, and both Pilatzke and Long had a few good solo sets.

McLeod, bass player Struby and drummer Ashton Geoghagan were as good as they've ever been with the band. But it can't be denied, the show was sorely lacking Neil Anderson's witty patter and crowd rapport. Long's efforts in that department fell flat -- did anyone understand his story about the drug-selling dog in goggles? He's a good piper and can boast of a flawless performance, but he doesn't have the flash and tricks which made Anderson such a treat to watch. That is, perhaps, an unfair comparison -- most pipers following in Anderson's wake would suffer in contrast to his aggressive personality and piping wizardry.

Also, stripping Anderson's songs -- largely his own unique interpretation of traditional material -- from the Seven Nations playlist has effectively redefined the band for the worse. Instead of the high-energy Celtic rock band they used to be, they now seem more like conventional rockers using bagpipes and fiddle in the arrangement as a gimmick. As one woman seated near me, who had attended a 1998 Seven Nations concert with the old lineup, remarked, "This is a nice concert. But it's not the band it was two years ago. They had more power then. It was charged."

Plenty of people seemed to agree, as the massive crowd which greeted the beginning of the concert dwindled rapidly before its end two hours later. And certainly the traditional tunes seemed to get the biggest reaction from the crowd. But fortunately, plenty of people like or didn't notice the changes -- or, perhaps, simply had never heard Seven Nations before -- and so kept grooving and screaming and cheering 'til the end. McLeod urged the crowd to its feet for the final number, which began with a twist on the bagpiper's standard hymn, "Amazing Grace" and included a lovely moment when everything but the drums dropped out, leaving thousands of spectators to sing a verse alone. They remained on their feet for the pumped-up encore song, "Our Day Will Come."

Seven Nations is still making great first impressions. One first-timer called the band's performance "awesome" and said, quite simply, "They rock." But for those of us who knew them back when, the new Seven Nations seems a pale imitation of what it used to be.

[ by Tom Knapp ]