Brian McNeill and Tom McDonagh’s Horses for Courses

cover art for Horses For CoursesThere’s a photo of Brian McNeill getting ready to kiss a horse on the final page of the Horses for Courses liner notes. Or at the very least he’s talking to it in a rather intimate manner. It’s a very cute picture – typical of a McNeill outing in that there’s always more than just excellent music going on. As Debbie Skolnik said in her review of The Busker And The Devil’s Only Daughter:

There is more to Brian McNeill’s albums than just the music they contain, although if you put one on without knowing a thing about McNeill, reading the liner notes or even looking at the song/tune titles, you could enjoy them purely on an auditory basis. But the liner notes are quite informative. At the very least, they give some hints about the motivations behind the songs; if they are McNeill’s own compositions, there’s a bit about what inspired them. If they are traditional in origin, then there’s some history as to how they came about.

Horses for Courses is a 1993 release from Greentrax that came in this week. (It’s not the oldest item sent to Green Man Review for review. That honor goes to Yugoslav Folk Songs, a 1978 SUNY publication, that Brendan Foreman is reviewing.) As usual, Brian’s fiddling is at its very best – not to mention his playing of the viola, hurdy-gurdy, concertina, bouzouki, mandocello, mandolin, and guitar. Joining Brian on this outing is Tom McDonagh (vocals, bouzouki, mandolin, and guitar), along with Dick Gaughan (vocals, guitar synthesizer, and guitar), Kieran Halpin (vocals and guitar), Dougie Pincock (highland pipes, Scottish small pipes, whistles, bodhran, and soprano sax), and Dave Tulloch (side drum). Brian has a knack for picking great session players and Horses for Courses is true to that. And he also produces this album – when does he sleep? Not late at night or early in the morn as the liner notes thank “Chizuko for the midnight feast and Annette for the great late breakfast.” (Always read his liner notes!) Ah, but you want to know about the music, not his personal habits.

There are twelve tracks including: “Horses For Courses/The Rank Outsider/The Black Mare,” “Sunday On The Jar,” “The Dark Island,” “Tripping Down the Stairs/The Convenience Reel,” “Johnny Gallagher/Jimmy Ward’s Jig,” “Mary And The Soldier / The Alma,” and “Blackwaterside.” A very upbeat set of tunes (“Horses For Courses/The Rank Outsider/The Black Mare”) lead off this album with Brian doing lead vocal honors and playing concertina, bouzouki, fiddle, and mandolin) with Tom and Dougie filling out the sound.

Brian notes on his Web site that “Anyone who writes and performs from traditional roots has to go back to them from time to time – and I couldn’t have asked for better company than Tom McDonagh for the trip …” I certainly agree that Tom’s playing of bouzouki and guitar nicely complements Brian’s playing. Following this lively set is “Sunday On The Jar,” a moving lamentation upon the suffering caused by too wild a weekend. And if you are not careful, you may end up like the narrator in “Johnny Gallagher,” impressed in the navy and standing guard all night long in some foreign land. Or you may end up like the lucky soldier in “Mary and the Soldier,” and some pretty lass may take a lusty liking to you. Rounding out this album are lots of wonderful reels and jigs to keep your toes a-tappin’ long into the night.

I can’t possibly tell the story of the tunes and songs on the CD as well as Brian does in his two page essay in the liner notes. (He notes Horses for Courses is in part inspired by a disasterous race, the English Grand National, when everything went wrong!) Brian is one of those rare fey beings who plays wonderfully, composes music with a deft touch, and cares about his music. Horses for Courses reflects these values. You won’t be disappointed in this or any other album by him. The busker in Brian simply cannot let the listener not have a good time!

(Greentrax, 1993)

Cat Eldridge

I'm the publisher of Green Man Review. I do the Birthdays and Media Anniversary write-ups for Mike Glyer’s file770.com, the foremost SFF fandom site. My current audiobooks are Simon R. Green’s Jekyll & Hyde Inc., Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues and Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time. I just read Kathryn Kristine Rusch’s Ten Little Fen which was most superb. My music listening as always leans heavily towards trad Celtic and Nordic music. I’m watching my way though all twenty one seasons of the British forensic series Silent Witness. Yes, twenty one seasons. And I keep adding plants to my flat here, up to nearly thirty now including a miniature banana tree which is growing nice and my first pineapple bromeliad.

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