Twenty nineteen sees Brian McNeill celebrate fifty years in music; no mean feat in itself, but there is more to celebrate about those years than longevity. Yes, surviving fifty years in music is an achievement, but to do it whilst putting back more than you took out, that requires something really special.
I first met up with Brian, almost inevitably, at the Cambridge Folk Festival, back in the very early nineties. At the time Fatea was still a paper magazine and by and large we were still predominantly covering the indie fringe, though the acoustic spectrum was starting to feature more and more.
If my memory serves me right, I think I might have been introduced to him by Fraser Nimmo, but that's a bit of a blur. What I do remember is the conversation, which probably lasted not much more than ten to fifteen minutes but had more of an impact, not only about the music I listened to, but also in teaching me that traditional music was a living, breathing thing. Up until that point, like a lot of casual observers, I had pretty much viewed it as a heritage, almost museum piece.
Over the years I've had many conversations with Brian and am pleased to count him as a friend. I've also been fortunate enough to encounter many musicians whom Brian has helped and influenced to ensure that Scottish music remains that living, breathing thing. When I first met Brian, I had no real idea of his background or the importance that was something I came to realise the better I knew him.
If you've not yet crossed paths with Brian, he's a multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriting novelist, with a real passion that music and performance are part of a living breathing tradition. He started out on the fiddle, moved to guitar, returned to fiddle and subsequently added a range of instruments to his repertoire, most famously through a mandocello known as 'The Tank' and English Concertina, among others. He's also no mean talent behind the desk with a number of production credits to his name. You'll recognise some of the acts that Brian McNeill has played in and influenced, his position as a stalwart of Scottish Folk and songwriting has long been recognised, but more on that later.
This year at Cambridge we did our first interview and as you might imagine, fifty years have not diminished Brian's desire to look to the future, but that wasn't going to stop us exploring how the past influences that.
Brian had literally just come off stage after what is technically known as the Saturday Session though everyone knows it as the Brian McNeill Session and his hosting the session means he's the longest running booked article at the festival. It's a Saturday afternoon fixture at Cambridge and very much a hard circled set in a lot of people's programmes. Having lead the session for pretty much every Cambridge I've attended it seemed like a good place to start.
Every Session is unique with combinations of musicians that you've not seen before or since and this year was no different. "Well it was, slightly difference in emphasis, we had fewer traditional players this year and more contemporary ones, but once in a while, that's a healthy change as well." Brian reflected. "Some of the stuff that just came up there was incredible. The three solo singers - Amy Goddard, Zoe Wren & Odette Michell - getting together to do an acapella version of Caledonia, it was lovely." And that's the magic of the Session; each of the three was there to do a couple of solo songs, but a quick conflab backstage in the warmup and all of a sudden something new was born.
Change has always played a big part in music and you don't survive fifty years in the cut and thrust of the music business without being confident in your direction and being able to read the waters. Compared to when I first started running Fatea, there is a real confidence in Scottish music, but at the start of Brian's career, things were very different.
"I think if you want to talk in terms of Scotland, which is my area of expertise, it's really come a long way, from me in 1967, deciding to learn Scottish fiddle and not being able to find a teacher in the million soul city of Glasgow. I think what you've got now is a thriving Scottish scene, where the tradition is really being taken seriously.
I've got to say that I think the biggest triumph of my generation of players, is that, probably a group of less than two hundred people, saved the national music. We took it by the scruff of the neck and rescued it from the clutch of the Bonnie Prince Charlies and all that. My generation of bands, The Battlefield Band, Silly Wizard, The Tannahill Weavers, Five Hand Reel, Boys Of The Lough, suddenly we were prepared to go into the depths of the music. Yes we were able to bring it back, but I always say to people, "It's taken two generations to get it to where it is now. It would only take two generations of neglect to get it back to where it was, which was almost dead. On that level everything is much better than it was.
There are pitfalls at the moment - in the name of making a living, people tend to be in more than one band. In my day, you were either in The Battlefield Band or Silly Wizard and so on. Now everyone is in two or three bands and eke out the rest of the time teaching. It doesn't make for good identities for bands, so there is a bit of a problem with that. But those problems are tiny compared to the serious problems of making it all work.
The next big challenge in Scotland is to get flexible venues, somewhere you can accommodate fifty or five hundred people, depending on the size of the show."
That brought us onto the subject of live music. Brian McNeill is a consummate musician with many albums behind him, not just in his own name, but for many years with the Battlefield Band, Clan Alba and Feast Of Fiddles, as well as numerous guest appearances and production credits. He also curated a compilation album, "The Falkirk Music Pot" that celebrated the music of his home town. Despite this, what has resonated with me most is Brian in performance. When he's on stage there always appears to be an itch to get started, to entertain.
During our conversation it became apparent that this was an area that Brian feared for, but once again nodded towards the future. "I think there's a problem pretty much all over the British Isles and to a lesser extent in the States and Europe. I think it's essentially, us being organised as musicians comes in. The MU is there for a good reason, to make sure we're not playing for two pints and a packet of crisps, we get paid more for our efforts now. I think by and large the whole thing is healthy. Where it's less than healthy is we've yet to crack the media perception that we're some kind of weird, small, alternative music and it would be really good if we can get that cracked.
You only have to look around this wonderful festival of Cambridge and realise the breadth of what is happening here under this strange label of folk to realise the music has never been healthier. The people that come to this aren't the people that are saying they want folk to be two guitars and pullovers, they are saying play me something that's going to excite me. We had the young musicians from Fèis Rois at my Session. That organisation is turning out world class musicians every year. Every year it's a different bunch of musicians that come to Cambridge. I take my hat off to Fiona Dalgetty and all the people who work there. They are turning out young players and singers who are not only great musicians, but they come to a place like this and reinforce what they are learning about great performance, which is a different art, if you like, from the business of playing. It's healthy in those sorts of terms"
That brought me to Brian's personal live experiences, not so much the individual performance, but more the way music travels. Brian has traced the path of Scotland both to the West and to the East, writing albums about both. He's a regular at many overseas festivals as well as the likes of Cambridge. With travel restrictions looming as a consequence of Brexit it seemed pertinent to talk about how he saw the future of touring, especially from the perspective of having toured Europe before the introduction of free movement.
"Well we've all had to put up with the issues of the baggage handler with the extra chromosome, trying to put instruments on an aircraft. The airlines don't make it easy for musicians. There are some people that work well with musicians and if you get one of them when you checkin you're fine with that. The rest of the stuff, the Brexit nonsense is going to make life a lot more difficult for everybody.
The business of getting visas for America is long and complicated. I think that if I didn't have a constituency already in America, that wants to hear me and my music, I would be tempted to put that on the back burner. To apply for an American visa is three months of your life." That's something that can be attested to by another regular Fatea favourite, Luke Jackson, who recently had to undertake that for his first solo tour. Challenges in touring aren't new, says Brian again.
"In one way, travelling has always been difficult, it's just the nature of the difficulty that's changed. Before we had the European Union, we used to have a different system called carnet de passage where you had to sign everything you had in your car or van into and out of a country. God help you if you got a sheet wrong, as you had to post a bond with your local chamber of commerce and have a temporary import and export licence. With the EU, which personally I think is wonderful, that all changed. Suddenly you didn't have to do any of that nonsense you could go anywhere you wanted within the European Union. A lot of us did just that, a lot of us made it a natural home."
Inevitably the conversation came around to the fifty years of music that Brian celebrated in two thousand and nineteen. How do you keep focus, particularly in the creative arts for such an extended period, where does the inspiration keep coming from?
"Everything. I've never found a shortage of ideas. My priority is taking those ideas and working out which of those are the real goers, which are the ones that I might need collaboration on and which are not worth burning a candle to, good ideas and bad.
I have to say, I've always perceived myself as a storyteller. I find that the easiest way to think about my stuff. Sometimes a tune can tell a story. Particularly when you get into complex, historical stuff about Scotland, a song tells the story and if it's more complicated than that, a novel. They're all pulled from the same well as far as I'm concerned. I'm a storyteller and I'm happy to be that."
Brian McNeill has been a lynchpin in keeping Scottish traditional music alive and vibrant. He has been a key member of a number of bands and has really encouraged two generations of musicians, there are always new artists that are part of the Brian McNeill Session. From the outside it's very easy to see Brian's dedication to the future of music, whilst acknowledging the influences that shape direction. It was for this that he was the first ever winner of the Fatea Lifetime Achievement Award, but I was wondering what it looked like from the inside, how did Brian measure his own achievements?
"Probably still being here. It's a joke, but not much of a joke. I've watched a lot of my contemporaries fall away. It's not an easy life. You have to accept that you have to go to where the gigs are and sometimes that can be manic. I've just finished here at Cambridge and I go to a festival in Canada tomorrow with a flight out of Heathrow. With me being slightly older I'm doing less of it. You have to go where people still want to hear your music and that's still, very much, a twoedged sword.
In terms of other achievements, I'd like to think that the songs have taken on a life of their own. I'd also like to say, how do I say it, the general ethos of being the kind of performer I am, what you see is what you get."
Again Brian reached out wider and drew a comparison with another artist.
"The main thing I'm proud of is that whatever edge of the scene I've been on, I seem to have made it work in a reasonable sense. We were in here the other night watching Ralph McTell and Ralph's the same sort of survivor that I am. He hasn't really changed what he does, he writes his songs, he's a killer guitar player, but never got quite the credit he should have for that, and he just stands up on stage and does it. We're both in that camp, what you see is what you get.
One thing that worries me about the scene is the extent to which it's important what you look like and how you present yourself and whether you're trendy or not - and this, in many ways, can be the deciding factor about how far your music goes. I've never subscribed to it and I never will.
I'm lucky to be able to say I'm the survivor that I am. I will always stand up there and give you an honest day's work with the tunes and songs I choose."
If I had to define Brian in just one song, without hesitation it would be "Sell Your Labour Not Your Soul", known to some as "Join The Union". It's a big fixture of Brian's set and is often sung acapella with the audience joining it. I've sung it many a time, often in the press pit watching Brian's sets. It's an empowering song and one that shows a commitment to society that is a keen part of performances that don't shirk away from politics and people.
"I'm a left winger and that's the end of it, I'm not a doctrinaire left winger, but I am a left winger of the type that believes that a song can do as much as industrial action. We sang "Sell Your Labour Not Your Soul" today, the entire tent sang it and meant it. It's a song that says "ok we believe in trade unions, we believe in people's ability to band together and make things better" and god help us if we ever lose that message.
All of these things start out at a grassroots level. In some ways, they are like a weed in your garden you can't kill. You're in the situation where everybody in the business will say' "If you're not in that jelly mould you're not going to make money, you won't make it into the charts. I'm not interested in making it into the charts, I want to sit in front of people who want to listen to what I have to offer, who are prepared to accept that I will never kowtow to political correctness or anyone telling me what to play … I have run across it at festivals in the States where they say no political comment allowed and I just say I'll sing what I sing, end of story.
In terms of my greatest achievement, it's definitely a weird one because I do genuinely think that what I've brought to the whole thing is there's a guy here who'll write songs about Scotland or modern life or anything and they will be songs that mean something. If you're interested in listening with your brain open, then there'll be something to take away and that makes me feel valuable. I would like that to be the impression people have of me."
As a post script, Amy Goddard, Zoe Wren & Odette Michell who came together to perform "Caledonia" have got their debut gig as a trio, The Honeybees, at the Gallery Cafe, London on Jan 15th.
words and pictures Neil King