Ethos and Energy

Casey Neill's new CD paints a folk-punk portrait of the Big Apple

At the risk of pigeonholing himself, singer-songwriter Casey Neill admits that, when it comes to musical categories and defining his sound, he's most comfortable with the phrase "folk punk." That makes sense, too, since real folk music has a shared rebellious spirit with punk rock, and real punk rock perennially has been a forum for expressing the concerns of the common folk.

Neill, 35, grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones records from his mother's and father's collections, and although he went through his own hair-metal phase in the 1980s, he says his ears and eyes finally opened to the possibilities of music when he heard acts that combined punk, alternative rock, traditional folk and Americana.

"Aside from those singer-songwriter types, my greatest love has been people who combined a folk ethos and a punk energy, such as Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, the Pogues and Uncle Tupelo," Neill said last week on the phone from his home in Portland, Ore.

Others have described Neill's sound with some variation on "dark alt-folk" or "modern roots rock with country, punk and Celtic styles."

Last week, Neill was preparing to embark on a modest concert tour to promote his brilliant forthcoming CD, Brooklyn Bridge. That three-week jaunt brings him to Tucson for a gig Saturday night at downtown's Solar Culture Gallery.

Neill said he has played in Tucson several times in past years, mostly at venues managed by artist Steven Eye, such as Solar Culture and the former Downtown Performance Center.

Although Neill has returned to Portland after several years of living and playing in and around the Big Apple, Brooklyn Bridge is in large part a poetic folk-punk portrait of the huddled masses that comprise the diverse human tapestry that is New York City.

The album's second song, a collision of Celtic and rowdy Springsteen-style rock titled "We Are the City," is among its defining high points. Its energy and edge seem to represent the richness of community in New York.

Addressing lyrics such as "The beautiful and the broken ... I'm drinking down on 11th and A with all my favorite wastrels," Neill explained: "I think I was living there and getting that whole feeling of a world-in-a-city thing. You hear five languages or more a day on the subways. That aspect of it is really different from most other American cities.

"The other thing that happened to inspire that song was I took a summer-school course on Walt Whitman, and he wrote page after page about the people and landmarks of the city, making it a living, breathing entity."

Elsewhere on the CD, Neill evokes traditional Celtic music, R.E.M.'s jangly fusion of country-folk and modern rock, admitted Neill idols such as Nick Cave, New Model Army and Fugazi, and what seems like the breadth of folk Americana, from Pete Seeger to Steve Earle.

Although Neill's own Celtic roots reach back to Scotland more than to Ireland, the epic literature and songwriting styles of immigrants from the British isles has greatly affected his sensibilities.

"There's that traditional immigrant experience, for people of the second or third generations to have come here. So much of our music today is steeped in it. Definitely, that music has spoken to me. Songs like 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' and stuff--I was instantly drawn to that type of melody and storytelling style."

However, Neill first decided he wanted to create music of his own when became enraptured at 10 years old with Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" on the radio. "The funny thing is that Eric 'Roscoe' Ambel plays guitar on that track," he said.

Funny because Ambel is one of many guest artists who cameo on Brooklyn Bridge. Among the other participants are singer-songwriters Erin McKeown and John Wesley Harding, as well as Jenny Conlee and Chris Funk of the chamber-pop band The Decemberists. (Conlee and Funk both play in the Neill-fronted Pogues tribute band KMRIA.)

Neill's current touring band is a small combo named the Norway Rats. It's a trio with drummer Adam East and bassist Jeff Lister, Neill said.

Slated for a May 8 release on the Portland-based independent label In Music We Trust Records, Brooklyn Bridge is Neill's sixth release overall and was some five years in the making, he confessed.

Neill released his 1995 debut album, Riffraff, himself. It landed him a deal with the folk label Appleseed Recordings, which released Casey Neill in 1998. That was followed by 1999's Skree, which was produced by the late, legendary Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham.

Neill formed a fast friendship with Cunningham, who played in such groups as Nightnoise and Silly Wizard and produced acts as varied as Solas and the Dropkick Murphys. They kept in touch as Neill "ping-ponged" back and forth between New York and Portland.

Following Neill's 2001 live album Portland West, Cunningham convinced Neill to dive into his record collection and incorporate his love of electric music into his repertoire of theretofore acoustic music. Recording commenced on the tracks that would become Brooklyn Bridge.

Cunningham passed away unexpectedly at 46 in December 2003. Part of the recordings had been completed, but Neill took his time editing and re-recording some of the tracks in a manner similar to how he imagined Cunningham would have.

In the meantime, Neill saw the release in 2005 of the stopgap album Memory Against Forgetting, a collection of demos, live cuts, asides and tracks from the now-out-of-print Riffraff. That CD served to keep Neill on the minds of folk and indie rock fans around the country.

To complete the album, Neill created a loving tribute to Cunningham, the elegiac Tom Waits-influenced ballad "King Neptune."

No matter which song he's singing, Neill's warm, gruff and friendly growl is a constant. He said Cunningham instructed him to not let his voice become too pretty on some of the songs from Brooklyn Bridge. "He told me to party until dawn before the recording sessions, so I'd sound like hell, like Mark Lanegan."

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