The son of a traveling U.S. Air Force dad and an English mum, Kirk McLeod was 11 when the family left Great Britain for suburban Central Florida.
Across the pond, he’d developed a fondness for traditional Celtic music and its instrumentation, the bagpipes in particular.
McLeod’s father signed him for a Scottish arts summer camp in North Carolina, where the young musician was taught the difficult art of piping by some of the best instructors in the country.
At the same time, he’d scored a guitar and was learning how to rock ‘n’ roll.
“Once I started playing pipes, I’d go to compete at Scottish arts festivals around the country,” McLeod explains. “But on the weekdays, I had a garage band with my middle school buddies.”
That, in a nutshell, was the genesis of Seven Nations, the band headlining this weekend’s Savannah Irish Festival in the Civic Center.
“I was like, ‘Why am I doing both? They should be put together.’ It seemed like no–brainer to me.”
He had an affinity for hard, chugging power–pop music, the sort of punchy melodic stuff that begged for electric guitars, bass and drums.
At first, he hesitated to put his plan into action.
“As a kid, I was such a purist about the bagpipes and traditional music that I could never imagine it,” says McLeod. “Because I was studying with some of the real greats at the time, and they’re purists.
“To imagine moving that culture into something else was really drastic, in my eyes. I was like the golden child with all my instructors.”
It was 1993 when he first attempted to fuse traditional Celtic instrumentation with rock ‘n’ roll.
“We were living in New York City at the time,” McLeod recalls, “and I brought some childhood friends up to work with me on the first incarnation of Seven Nations. A lot of the songs were very hard–edged, power–pop stuff with pipes and all that. Very much like we still do now.”
For a period, the band — originally known as Clan Na Gael — included an all–acoustic offshoot, heavy on the Great Highland pipes, tin whistle and mandolin.
Audiences, McLeod and his bandmates discovered, preferred the plaid puree of their harder–edged stuff. So they bailed out of the acoustic sets.
“At first we took a lot of old, traditional songs and tried to update them into a rock format,” he says. “And obviously, no matter how well you play them, you’re going to get some controversy there. But from maybe 1999 on, we’ve only really done songs that we’ve written ourselves.
“What we do is, when we throw the pipes and fiddle in, we don’t masturbate with them. We don’t let them go too far off the track. We keep them traditionally sounding good.
“The bagpipe movements are played incredibly well. A piping judge would really appreciate the way they’re being played, even though it’s in this format. And the same with the fiddle. As far as the playing is concerned, we stick to our traditional roots. But with the songwriting, we try to take it further.”
Seven Nations has recorded a dozen albums, including the successful A Celtic Rock Tribute to the Cure, and a pair of Christmas EPs.
That’s the band’s music you hear under the opening titles of ESPN’s Extreme Sports program.
McLeod knows his unique marriage of high–caliber Celtic musicianship and big–balls rock ‘n’ roll isn’t for everybody, particularly the purists.
“It’s probably to our detriment,” says. “Instead of playing the old favorites, taking the easy route, we’ve always taken the higher route and tried to be true. And not just sell out to what would make the audience happy, just for the sake of doing that.
“It would be so much easier just to play ‘Scotland the Brave’ or ‘Danny Boy’ or something like that, and just do it with energy. The audience would love it.”
Savannah Irish Festival
Where: Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: Feb. 17-19
Tickets: $12 per one day ticket (Saturday or Sunday); $16 two-day ticket. Under 14 free
Cieli (Irish dance): 7 p.m. Friday ($5 donation)
10:15 a.m.: Opening Ceremony with St. Vincent's Academy Chorale
11:45 a.m.:12:30 Glor na Daire Dancers
12:45 p.m.: Na Fidleiri
1:45 p.m.: Morning Star
2:45 p.m.: Ennis
3:45 p.m.: Irish Dancers of Savannah
4:45 p.m.: Harry O'Donoghue
6-7 p.m.: Seven Nations
Noon: Irish Dancers of Savannah
1 p.m.: Seamus Kennedy (storyteller)
2 p.m.: Harry O'Donoghue
3 p.m.: Glor na Daire Dancers
4 p.m.: Ennis
5-6 p.m.: Morning Star and Finale
The Savannah Irish Festival includes four stages of cultural events including literary readings, film screenings and lectures. Kids' entertainment, food and drink. See savannahirish.org.