This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2008/2009 issue
Brian McNeill is an amazing figure in the Scottish branch of our modern Celtic Revival. Audiences first got to know him as a charter member of The Battlefield Band, a shifting lineup of confident and fiery performers that’s still touring today. Equally at home on the fiddle and his double-course instruments (bouzouki and mandocello), Brian also sang with uncompromising conviction and even wrote his own songs and tunes. In fact, he wrote great rafts of songs and tunes over the past thirty years, many of which have rightfully found their way into the international pub tradition.
I always admired Brian for his intensity as a performer, for his attentiveness when playing with other musicians, and for the fact that he was such an incredibly nice guy off-stage—easy-going, supportive, and articulate. And there was something else about Brian’s music that I loved but only years later was able to consciously identify.
Like Brian, I shifted between fiddle and mando, but unlike Brian, I didn’t write a lot of session tunes. Yet Brian would play these blistering, totally cool original tunes on the bouzouki or mandocello and what made them so cool was that they retained a fiddler’s panache while falling comfortably under the fingers on the fretboard. I’ve written in past issues about jigs and reels that present quirks or problems because they were written on a button accordion or a flute or some other trad instrument on which some runs or intervals are easy that present real ergonomic difficulties to the mando enthusiast.
Well, Brian’s tunes are equally appealing to fiddler and mando player. In fact, I’m certain both my fiddle and mando chops are stronger for the time I spent playing along with Brian’s recordings, both with The Battlefield Band and later, after he’d graduated to a long and varied solo career (which, happily, is still going strong). His music is unfailingly, soaringly confident, and he encourages playing with a wicked downbeat.
I also like Brian because he writes novels. Good novels. When I was hacking away at my first novel, giggling to myself at the grief I was putting my Irish fiddler protagonist through, the only other musician I knew who was crazy enough to try writing a novel was Brian McNeill. We ran into each other periodically in our musical travels and would encourage each other to keep writing and maybe even get published someday. I secretly hoped to beat him to the bookstores. But he beat me handlily, by years, publishing first “The Busker” and then the sequel “To Answer the Peacock”, both starring his Scots fiddling hero Alex Fraser, who scampered across Europe one step ahead of danger.
And why, you may wonder, am I mentioning this? Well, Brian put out lovely CDs of tunes to accompany each novel. I found myself the other day listening to the collection he released to go with “To Answer the Peacock” and once again I found myself unable to resist reaching for my octave mandolin and playing along. Every tune on the CD is worth learning, but until you go hunt down a copy, here’s one hot Scots reel from the pen and bow of Brian McNeill: “The Mecklenburg Reel”. Mandolins and octave mandolins ought to have an equally good time with it.
This reel sounds like it might have been written 200 years ago, with its coy toggling of adjacent minor and major phrases. The repeat B part ends with a lovely melodic avalanche that rockets back to the top of the tune. And the most sensible place to stop is at the end of the repeat A part.
The ornaments might take a little work, but they’re not that tricky. For the 4-note figure on the third beat of the first bar, pick the first E with a down stroke, then follow with a hammer-on F and two pull-offs, then pick the following E on the fourth beat with another down stroke. Keep your picking strokes very short and you’ll get it. This will help propel forward with appropriate Scots fire.
The open E triplets in the third bar of the B part and beyond are crispest if you can hit the first E with a down stroke, then hammer-on and pull-off but also hit the last E with an up stroke. Again, this may feel odd at first, but is worth mastering.
I didn’t ask Brian’s permission to use “The Mecklenburg Reel”, so the least I can do is encourage you to check out his website (www.brianmcneill.co.uk) and urge you both to add his CDs to your music collection and to read his novels. There’s some dark and steamy stuff in there and you have to wonder how many details were pulled from real life. “To Answer the Peacock” (both book and CD) may be out of print, but used copies can be found easily online. Have fun with “The Mecklenburg Reel” and may your touring be less harrowing than Alex Fraser’s.