Now in his early sixties, Scottish folk musician Brian McNeill has been performing traditional and writing traditionally-inspired music since the late 1960s, when he co-founded the Battlefield Band. Two of these three CDs are representative of some of his more recent work. The third, The Road Never Questions, is a compilation of his work from earlier recordings.
Subtitled “Tales of the Scots in Europe,” The Baltic tae Byzantium offers a fifty-plus minute musical journey across the continent, following the Scottish diaspora. This CD features eleven tracks written and composed by McNeill. Although a variety of guest artists appear throughout the CD (enriching the sound with harp and autoharp, highland pipes, whistles, and backup vocals), it serves first and foremost as a splendid showcase for McNeill’s many talents. He sings and plays fiddle, mandocello, mandola, bouzouki, guitar, concertina and hurdy-gurdy. While the type is a challenge for aging eyes to read, the extensive liner notes appear in booklet form and give the interested listener some background on the pieces.
The title track, first in the lineup, runs nearly six minutes long and offers in highland brogue an imagined story of the Scottish peddlers who left their homeland and took off across Europe to sell their wares and see the sights. The second track, “Scotus,” is a short and haunting guitar instrumental about a pair of monasteries founded by Scotsmen–in Germany! Track four, titled “Bothwell” after the last husband of Mary Queen of Scots, is a slow air featuring a harp and some very interesting percussion. Track seven is one of those instrumental medleys that I always love hearing on McNeill’s albums. At eight-plus minutes, “Bring the Lassie Home” is the longest track on this CD. It’s a story about his father’s experiences serving in Europe during WWII and the woman he met in Austria and brought home to Scotland to be Brian’s mother. Charming!
On The Crew o’ the Copenhagen, Brian is joined by his often-times bandmates Drones & Bellows, who contribute percussion, vocals, banjo, cittern, Scottish smallpipes and a variety of other instruments to his own assortment of soundmaking devices. At least a few of the tracks on this CD are traditional, although many are written by Brian or other members of the band. The Crew o’ the Copenhagen runs fifty-five minutes long and also features eleven tracks. My notes from listening to the CD say “nary a weak track here!” I particularly fancy the English concertina and spoons on track two, “The Northumbrian Set.” Track five, “The Scottish Set,” is a medley of three tunes Brian learned on the fiddle and transposed to guitar for this recording. It segues into track six, “Only the Devil Knows the Answer,” which includes an original song bracketed by two traditional tunes. The instrumental arrangement is really quite fine, and the vocal harmonies on the chorus are too! Liner notes are less extensive on this CD, but still sufficient to satisfy the curious listener.
As is typical for a compilation CD, The Road Never Questions runs a bit longer, over an hour, and includes a whopping eighteen tracks varying in length from two to over six minutes. Liner notes are a mite sketchy, Brian reminiscing about his musical history, but nothing specific to the tracks or the albums on which they originally appeared. My listening notes say lots of medleys on this one, which is never a bad thing, as far as I am concerned. I also noted button concertina as a instrument on several tracks, which is just fine by me. My notes for tracks ten and fourteen (both medleys of reels) refer to a wall of sound, so you can imagine how lively and engaging they are!
I would be hard pressed to tell you which of these would be your best bet if you had to pick one. I would say you can’t go wrong with any. This is the kind of quality Scottish music for which Brian McNeill has long been known and revered.
Mad River Records, 2009
Fenn Music Service, 2010
Mad River Records, 2011