Brian McNeill gives the mandocello a work out. Photo by Rob Weir.

It’s easy for a musician to go with the flow when there’s plenty of it. I’ve seen under-the-weather performers ooze into a crowded hall, feed off the collective energy, and play like they’d been extruded from the mouth of a volcano. The opposite is much harder. What do you do when you’re primed for action but walk into a near-empty hall with a sound system set to absorb non-existent bodies?

The latter was the situation facing Scotland’s Brian McNeill on Saturday night when he took the stage to an audience of 17 in the 200-seat East Hartford Community Cultural Center. McNeill came armed with a new album, The Baltic to Byzantium, the story of Scots émigrés to Europe and the sequel to his highly acclaimed 1991 release The Back o’ the North Wind, which traces the triumphs and travails of Scots in the Americas. A less-experienced performer might have simply plowed ahead, a temperamental one would have sulked through the evening, and a less-confident one might have walked away with a wounded ego. Luckily McNeill—a cofounder of Scotland’s seminal Battlefield Band and a veteran of four decades of touring—has been around the block enough times to know how to improvise on the fly. He salvaged what could have been a very uncomfortable evening with a savvy combination of improvisation and respect for his audience.

McNeill switched back and forth between fiddle, mandocello, and guitar and pretended as if the setting was more intimate than it was. Instead of forcing his way through material designed for a different purpose he drew from a vast repertoire and served up songs from his backlist, some appealing instrumentals, and a few judiciously selected songs from the new album. Those who think of McNeill primarily as a fiddler were startled to discover his considerable prowess and range on guitar—a modified rag composed in Texas was a real gem. (The Taylor guitar he borrowed for the evening had a gorgeous tone.) Above all, McNeill donned the raconteur’s hat. Each of the concert’s selections came prefaced with stories—some from past days with Battlefield, some from history books, and quite a few from what the history books haven’t recorded but should. His tales were as grandiose as those drawn from the exiled court of Bonnie Prince Charlie—who McNeill thinks was an abusive, spoiled brat who never got over the fact that he wasn’t a king—to those as literally down-in-the-dirt as miner songs. Interspersed were family stories, wry jokes, and invitations for the audience to participate.

McNeill played seventeen selections—one for each of us. Although that was probably unintentional, what was not was his decision to honor those who showed up, give them their money’s worth, and spend time chatting with them. As a musician who draws from the traditional music well, Brian McNeill understands that part of what it means to honor the past is to regard those in the present—no matter how they are aggregated. McNeill racked up substantial karma points on Saturday night. --LV

No comments: