To the very compact basement bar of The Harrison in Kings Cross for the official launch gig of Jason McNiff’s latest album ‘Joy and Independence’. He’s now on the splendidly-rostered At The Helm records and so we have a Bradford man living in London with his label management in Brighton so who needs Nashville? Hailed as “a superior singer/songwriter” by the erudite and well-respected USA magazine No Depression and 4-starred by the UK’s Mojo, McNiff states with some pride that this, his sixth album, is the first time he’s had the confidence to work with just an acoustic guitar and his voice. He says he framed the songs as “a homage to a golden era of the coffee house Troubadour”, albeit on this sultry Friday night we had replaced coffee with craft ale.
The title track opened the set. A narrative of a youthful relationship which hits the rails over time as the couple travel and find their limits. His song-writing muse is geographically eclectic with the lyrics covering a range of European nations. He sings of life in London, particularly as a musician not yet partaking of the city’s supposed riches but nevertheless wandering the central areas for inspiration and international travels. The tales skip from clearly autobiographical strands to fictional characters while he also shifts between times, both within the same song and across his repertoire. Thus the second song tonight, ‘Wind of Zaragoza’, was inspired by a less-than-optimal tour schedule that had him travel across Northern Spain from Galicia to Aragon overnight for a gig – and he attributes the frosty welcome of the locals to the strong winds for which the city is known. Meanwhile ‘Adieu to Lausanne’ is set in an apparent aftermath of war and ‘Blow up the Bridge‘ is one of the highlights of the set, musically and lyrically, being his take on Hemingway’s ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’. Set in the Spanish Civil War it does have that quality assurance in its source material and has a pacey galloping rhythm. ‘Stuck in the Past’ continued the high tempo, an evocative short track that describes the internal and domestic travails of someone working remote stretches on the UK’s oil fields.
McNiff is a craftful finger picker so there is always plenty going on to wrap your ears around while his singing style, if not his vocal register, is at times not unlike Dylan’s, with occasional quirky stresses and lengthened words to emphasis the rhythm. His name checks of East Molesey and Leicester Station however aren’t, to this reviewer’s knowledge, replicated in the Zimmerman canon. Cover versions of Bert Jansch and Townes Van Zandt bore witness to other key influences. Indeed ‘Midnight Shift’ is about his 1990’s forays to watch and learn from Jansch at the 12 Bar Club in London and it evokes an image reminiscent of Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing. A similar setting is used in the encore ‘Off the Rails’.
Engaging support was provided by Toni Montserrat whose guitar sound and subject matter remind one of Richard Buckner. Montserrat, a Majorcan who has clearly travelled further afield for his lyrical and musical influences, is a very humble showman but his performance was slick and heartfelt. His first full length album ’38 Bucks’ has contributions from the likes of Jason Ringenberg and Tim Easton and marks a shift from a harder sound towards acoustic arrangements.
Photograph by Guy Haslam