It's a long road from Portland to Brooklyn. But, for local songwriter Casey Neill, the path to Brooklyn Bridge—his new album—was far longer than geography would imply. It's been eight years, in fact, since Neill last released a collection of all-new material. And that nearly decadelong journey stretches from Portland to Manhattan and back again, passing through several groups and labels along the way, and one unexpected, harrowing turn: the sudden death of Neill's musical mentor (and the album's co-producer), celebrated Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham.
But Cunningham didn't depart without giving Neill a valedictory pep talk on the value of the songs now on Brooklyn Bridge (out yesterday). At their favorite East Village bar, two nights before his fatal heart attack in December 2003, Cunningham told Neill "how he really wanted this music to be heard," Neill recalls. "One of those 'you can make it, kid!' conversations." Those words helped Neill revive the project sooner than he otherwise might have following the death of his friend and collaborator.
And it was largely Cunningham's enthusiasm for Neill's music that had drawn the gruff-voiced singer back to his native Northeast in late 2002. Neill had spent a decade in Olympia and five years in Portland—during which he developed a nascent nationwide folkie following, both alone and with the Casey Neill Trio. Cunningham produced the trio's lone studio album, 1999's Skree, but after a follow-up live disc, the group disbanded. Afterward, Cunningham expressed a wish, Neill explains, "to take a bunch of my new songs from zero to finished without any agendas." None, perhaps, save one: In the spirit of Neill's loud musical heroes from Springsteen to New Model Army, Cunningham said, "Let's amp this up all the way." When Cunningham offered not only to produce the album but to play in a new band, Neill found himself with "no relationship, no plants, no cats" and no reason not to move to New York.
The Casey Neill Band, as it was, quickly grew into a high-volume monster demanding its own live album. Meanwhile, radical publishers AK Press and Indigo Girl Amy Ray's Daemon Records approached Neill about issuing a compilation of his political songs. Some new material emerged, allowing him to push Brooklyn Bridge further away. When Neill finally returned to Portland in 2005, he assembled yet another group, which he christened the Norway Rats after Manhattan's endemic rodents.
But Neill says the album didn't feel complete—and he didn't feel fully back in Portland—until the St. Patrick's Day '06 launch of KMRIA, the Pogues tribute band he formed with a couple of friends who also happened to be Decemberists (Chris Funk and Jenny Conlee), among other Portland players. The collective backs Neill on one of Brooklyn Bridge's standout tracks, "The Holy Land." It's an immigrants' tale that, though steeped in Lower East Side mythology, truly brought the album—and this well-traveled troubadour—back home.