Saturday, October 7, 2017


True Stories inevitably conjures up, at least to me, the wide and wonderful world of trad.arr., of broadsheet ballads and bards, distributing the events of the day in song, all the news that's fit to sing. OK, I accept that veracity may on occasion be debatable, particularly if the spirit world is involved, maidens becoming ravens and back again, fairies chasing fleeing horsemen, all of that, but a lot are based on the received wisdom of the day.

Brian McNeill I have mentioned the once, seemingly his only appearance in these pages, one-time fiddle (and other stringed instrumentation) powerhouse of Scotland's mercurial Battlefield Band. During and since his time with said band: he left in 1990, he has been far from idle, writing a couple of detective novels, putting out 12 largely solo records, as well as a handful with and as a member of fiddle supergroup, Feast of Fiddles. O, and lest I forget, the short-lived Clan Alba, the 2 drummer, 2 (bag)piper, 2 harps, bass, fiddle and guitar behemoth, set up by Dick Gaughan and doomed to near obscurity, courtesy the odd behaviour of their distribution company, the story of which would make a song in itself.

Back o' the North Wind was McNeill's 4th solo project, and the 1st after leaving Battlefield. It is a song cycle based on telling the true tales of those scots who elected to seek their way across the atlantic, seldom by choice. In his own sleeve notes he writes:
     "Over the centuries they (the scottish people) seem to have been prey
      to a perpetual outward force, pushing them to all parts of the globe.
      If it's a wind, then it's one that has many names, some harsh -
      poverty and persecution - and some hopeful- betterment, restlessness,
      a desire to know what's over the next hill, the next ocean."
And thus, in a variety of styles are portrayed the true stories of the celebrated and those not, from  Bonnie Prince Charlie's saviour, Flora McDonald to McNeill's Uncle Jim, from John Muir, conservationist and founder of Yosemite, to Andrew Carnegie. Here's the song about John Muir:

I remember thinking this a wonderful album when it came out, in 1991, thinking it would make a great show. I was thus both delighted (and disappointed) to learn that it had become such, an audio-visual show, of which I had been earlier unaware.

McNeill is still out there and on the road. He has for some years curated saturday afternoons at the venerable Cambridge Folk Festival, in a showcase for new scottish artists and any other of the performers passing by at that time. I recall a phenomenal set in which he played alongside Larry Campbell and David Bromberg, trading acoustic licks at 100mph. He is unimposing figure, greying now, his noteworthy girth barely contained by his trademark  braces, just, I think, visible in this clip, which shows his gentler side and the mastery of one of his many instruments.

For a more detailed background to this hero of mine, here's a an excellent documentary/showcase in the From the Artists Studio series.

Get Back O' The North Wind here


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