Jason McNiff may not be the best known of names, but this hard-working singer and guitarist has hewn himself quite a place in the annals of that awkwardly entitled genre, UK Americana. McNiff earned a degree in French and Russian, but the lure of his first love proved too strong. He immersed himself in the fingerpicked guitar of folk and blues, in particular the work and style of the late Bert Jansch.
Ahead his premature death, Jansch had had a residency at London’s 12 Bar Club, playing to the faithful every Wednesday. McNiff made sure he was there, week after week, soaking up the excellence. No doubt Jansch came to recognize the tousle-headed youngster in the front row; it’s no coincidence that McNiff’s first record deal was with Jansch’s brother-in-law’s label, Snowstorm. A slew of releases have followed, garnishing him, along the way with an Americana UK (a webzine) album of the year and a nomination for alt country best of year in the US Independent Music Awards. So, no slouch.
Like many current releases, COVID and lockdown birthed Tonight We Ride. McNiff spent his enforced vacation hunkering down with weekly on-line gigs: the “Sundowner” sessions. Exhausting both his own repertoire of songs and those he already loved by others, he had to learn a whole new catalog of material. Tonight We Ride was the logical conclusion: eleven songs encompassing artists McNiff holds the most in reverence, with a couple of his own for good measure. Unsurprisingly, this encompasses both the accepted great and good–in this case, Dylan, Townes, and the Beatles–as well as a couple from the next generation down. And, of course, a couple from Jansch, his idol, and whose percussive picking style permeates this album.
It is with Jansch that Tonight We Ride opens: “Running From Home,” a song from his pre-Pentangle 1965 debut. Lighter and sparklier than Jansch, it makes for a good start, the strings clanging delightfully. Sensibly, for Townes Van Zandt’s “My Proud Mountains,” McNiff eschews any suggestion of TVZ’s vocal style; his voice here is a near-whisper, the playing stripped back, the song becoming a wistful lament rather than the statement of wretchedness in its author’s hands. It is gorgeous.
So is Tom Russell’s title track. Russell is still alive, praise be, if undersung, so it is good to see him getting a shout. But, shhhh, I have to admit to finding, however good the songs, his vocal never quite suits my ear, so the Tex-Mex nortēna original is channeled into a less strident statement of intent. Actually, it sounds a little more like Mike Scott of the Waterboys, the arrangement not a million miles from anything off Fisherman’s Blues.
If I say I didn’t immediately recognize “Tomorrow Never Knows,” take that more a sign of McNiff’s mastery rather than any Beatle-based ignorance, the version here finding a country blues amidst the psychedelia. All in all, pretty astonishing, and one I’ll remember when we here at Cover Me get around to a “best Beatles covers ever” post. Am I allowed to say it way surpasses the original, the guitar picking exceptional?
No such sleight of ear possible with the instantaneously recognizable “One Too Many Mornings,” another gentle rendition, a full band here, McNiff on electric. The keyboard is pure Kooper, the vocals (not for the first time) evoking the whistling timbre of Donovan. “I Remember You” is a McNiff song, which takes that mood further and could actually come from any early Donovan release, from the time he and Dylan were compared in the same breath. The backing vocals, from an uncredited female voice, are spot-on, the guitar play impressive in the casual way it peels off his hands.
Did I mention Mike Scott earlier? The delicate melody of “Fisherman’s Blues” instantly recognizable, even just on a guitar. Pitched at a far less frantic pace than the Waterboys have ever played it, it is a highlight. OK, one could say it smacks too much of the same vocal style, but Scott has given it his vote of confidence on Twitter. From the distinctive fiddle parts replicated on picked guitar to the sotto voce acapella last line, it is terrific.
“The Open Road” is back to Jansch, a song a full thirty years younger than the opener. A little too angular of vocal in the original; McNiff, once more, offers a more pastoral feel. Next comes the oldest song on Tonight We Ride, one that shows no sign of losing any essence of topicality: Stephen Foster’s 1854 cracker, “Hard Times.” Here is a live performance, not that you’d realize until the burst of applause that meets its end, with McNiff applying a greater fragility to his voice than earlier and elsewhere shown. Tremendous.
Another voice I hadn’t realized as being reminiscent of McNiff is that of Mark Knopfler. That comparison is initially too powerful for a version of “Tunnel of Love” that is overly reverential and not quite vocally strong enough. But catch the guitar, a constant burbling presence beside the clipped drums and organ, then breaking free for some soloing that doesn’t try to ape the Dire Straits maestro at all, having a potent voice of its own. OK, one tiny little flicker towards the end, if only to show McNiff, too, can play just as fluidly.
“Shadow Ships of Deptford” is another McNiff-penned song, with more jangly percussive guitar. It’s good, but not strictly our brief. More Dylan follows; the seldom covered “Precious Angel” (from Slow Train Coming) sees McNiff demonstrating yet again his knack for transformation, finding more beauty in the song than the somewhat by-numbers lumpen nature of the 1979 song.
Who to end with, then? Again, I didn’t instantly recognize “Moving On” as being a Leonard Cohen song, it hailing from his posthumous Thanks For The Dance. A difficult song to cover, so ingrained is the end of life gravitas of Cohen’s own rendition, with the vibrant emotiveness, all Mediterranean nostalgias, being evoked so strongly by Javier Mas’s Spanish guitar and the mandolin of Avi Avital. McNiff plays it far simpler, giving it the taste of a prayer, just his delicate voice and guitar, the mood still of balmy summer sun, if that sun now clearly setting. The fade out and away is perfect.
Look this album out. I hope you can find it, either on Tombola records, in the UK, or Bandcamp. I entered this review intrigued and left a fan.
Tonight We Ride track listing:
- Running From Home (Bert Jansch cover)
- My Proud Mountains (Townes Van Zandt cover)
- Tonight We Ride (Tom Russell cover)
- Tomorrow Never Knows (The Beatles cover)
- One Too Many Mornings (Bob Dylan cover)
- I Remember You
- Fisherman’s Blues (Waterboys cover)
- The Open Road (Bert Jansch cover)
- Tunnel Of Love (Dire Straits cover)
- Shadow Ships Of Deptford
- Hard Times (Stephen Foster cover)
- Precious Angel (Bob Dylan cover)
- Moving On (Leonard Cohen cover)