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Casey Neill - A bridge to the Highlands

Portland may have been Casey Neill's home for the past two years, but the heart of his new, career-defining record, Brooklyn Bridge, belongs to New York City.

"Some of it is my history as a kid there," Neill says. "And some of it is my recent history there. The first gigs I did in New York were all in the Lower East Side in the '90s when it was all sort of squatters and community gardens, rent-style scenarios, and pirate radio. I have some nostalgia for all that. Some of it, like [the song] 'The Holy Land', is the old New York, which is something I'm just fascinated by -- the whole Gangs Of New York, Tammany Hall era.

"There's an overarching thing I wanted to do, which is kind of a ridiculous thing to say, but the way that [Walt Whitman's] 'Leaves Of Grass' follows these pictures of the city and just shows the teeming masses of all kinds of people shoved in together into one teeny little island -- I wanted this record to capture some of that."

The deepest emotional connection of the record, however, cuts far deeper. Brooklyn Bridge -- which was recorded mostly in New York and Rhode Island with an all star cast of musicians (including Eric Ambel, John Wesley Harding and Erin McKeown) -- was produced by Johnny Cunningham, a famed Scottish fiddler. The record was nearly done when Cunningham died of a heart attack at age 46 in December 2003.

Neill befriended Cunningham in the mid-'90s and convinced him to produce Skree (1999), a record Neill made for the folk label Appleseed. "I first got into Irish music because I loved the gut-wrenching ballads," Neill says, "but I really liked the ferocious fiddle thing that Johnny brought to Scottish music and that a lot of Irish bands had."

After Cunningham's death, Neill became near-obsessed with finishing Brooklyn Bridge in a way that would do Cunningham proud. He returned to Portland and lined up an impressive cast that included members of the Decemberists to record a few new songs. The album took on more of a rock 'n' roll feel, a direction Cunningham himself had been promoting; Eric Ambel says that when he showed up at the studio for the initial New York sessions, "Johnny and Casey were pretty much telling me to go ahead and play the big nasty guitar."

Brooklyn Bridge moves comfortably between stirring ballads, midtempo Americana songs, Celtic influences and rave-up rockers. It's held together by remarkably good songwriting. The emotional centerpiece is "King Neptune", Neill's posthumous ode to Cunningham, its title recalling a costume Cunningham wore in a Coney Island parade. "With your legendary charm/And a girl on your arm/Your heart forever in the Highlands," Neil sings.

Writing and recording the song, finishing the record without Cunningham, then finding a label and getting the record out were far more difficult than cathartic, Neill says. But he was all smiles at his record-release show in mid-May at a large Portland theater, backed by his top-flight band the Norway Rats, with friends from the Decemberists sitting in.

So how did it feel to see the record finally released? "The first day or two it was sort of anti-climatic somehow," Neill says. "It was like, OK, here it is, it's finally done. Part of that is also the notion of a CD as a package that you can actually hold in your hand is now devalued by the state of the industry. But aside from all that, about three days later it began to sink in and my excitement actually grew. Now that we're actually out on the road playing it, watching people walk away with the CD is really great."