The 1970s witnessed the rise of a number of bands in the British Isles comprised of young musicians seeking to meld the traditional music of their homelands -- England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland -- with elements of the rock and pop music they had grown up with. Sporting names like Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Tannahill Weavers, and Battlefield Band, they mixed electric instrumentation and drums with pipes and string instruments to produce a genre that came to be known by many as "bagpipe rock." Many of these bands continued well into the '80s, '90s, and beyond, while many others disbanded, with their members recombining into new bands with new and different variations on the theme. Such a band was Edinburgh-based Ceolbeg, a band with its beginnings in the early '80s that radically transformed itself in 1988 to become one of the most popular and respected of the Celtic folk bands.
To understand what differentiates Ceolbeg from other high-energy bagpipe rock bands such as, say, Wolfstone, a short lesson in Gaelic is necessary. "Ceol Mor" ("kale-more"), in the lexicon of the Scots, means "big music" and is a term used to describe the booming, traditional sound of the Highland war pipes, the sort of marching music heard from pipe bands at Highland games around the world. In contrast to this, "Ceol Beag" ("kale-beg") literally "small music" -- refers to the more delicate side of Scottish traditional music, the reels, jigs, and strathspeys usually played on harps, fiddles, and smaller wind instruments. Although the band's name, Ceolbeg, is a play on this term, the music made by the band is certainly not "small" in any sense of "lesser" or "insignificant." Although the Highland pipes were an integral part of the band's sound all along, they managed to mix the sheer power of the pipes with the more delicate harp and woodwind sound to produce a distinctive brand of music described by critics as "atmospheric," "swirling," and "fluent with firepower."
The constant force of Ceolbeg throughout its existence was flute player Peter Boond, who joined an early-'80s version of the band that relied mainly on fiddle and accordion for its sound. In 1988, he oversaw a transformation and reconfiguration of the band that included Kati Harrigan on clarsach (small harp), Andy Thorburn on keyboards, Gary West on pipes, and Davy Steele on guitar and lead vocals. Boond also played the bouzouki-like cittern for the band. Reflecting their perception of themselves as a performance-oriented band, the "new" Ceolbeg, from the beginning, considered soundman Adie Bolton to be a full-fledged bandmember. By 1991, Colin Matheson had replaced Thorburn on keyboards, while Wendy Stewart had joined in Harrigan's place. Stewart was known, in particular, for her distinctive harp style that was described by some as "bubbling." It was at this time that the element of drums and percussion was added to the Ceolbeg mix in the person of Jim Walker. West left the band in 1994 and was replaced by transplanted Californian Mike Katz, and it was this lineup -- Boond, Steele, Matheson, Stewart, Katz, and Walker -- that toured North America to glowing reviews in 1994. When Steele and Katz left to join the Battlefield Band in 1995, West returned on pipes and Rod Paterson replaced Steele as lead vocalist and guitarist. Walker departed in 1998 and was replaced by Mike Travis.
The final dozen years of the century saw the release of no less than five Ceolbeg projects on the Greentrax label, in addition to a number of solo projects by members of the band. With each of them involved in a variety of other projects (not to mention growing family commitments), it became more and more difficult for them to get together for tours and performances in the U.K., let alone overseas. As Colin Matheson said, however, it was a measure of how much they each enjoyed being a part of Ceolbeg that the band continued to have a life of its own.