As a lad, I used to frequent the Borderline a lot, but until Monday, 20-odd years had passed since I last disappeared under Charing Cross Road into the stygian gloom. It seems little changed (but where’s the sign?!) apart from an odd ticket system on the door that only just sees me lined up in front of the stage five minutes before the opening act of a night billed as the album launch party for McNiff’s new LP, God Knows Why We Dream. I say ‘act’; perhaps ‘walking embodiment of the late great folk revival’ would be more appropriate, though the person in question would doubtless shy away from such grandiose statements.
Said person is Wizz Jones. At the risk of telling you what you already know, Mr. Jones was a key mover in the late 50s folk movement alongside Bert Jansch, Alex Campbell, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. After his short set he gladly takes time out at the bar to weave some nostalgic magic, including what happened when as a callow youth of 17 he introduced himself to Muddy Waters, but when he steps on stage he’s all business, a throwback, perhaps, to the folk club days when it was more about the song, less about the banter.
Fleet of finger and cajoling, remonstrating and wrestling his acoustic, he delivers a seamless flow of favourites from a fifty year catalogue. He is dry, wry and relaxed, often starting one song straight from the previous, occasionally letting us know what they are but mostly allowing us to stand and listen. Cray’s Bad Influence is first out of the blocks, blurring into Weeping Willow Blues before Wizz stops to introduce Corinne and The King Of Rome as ‘..a song about a pigeon, probably stuffed now – comes from somewhere up north’ (See ‘King of Rome’ interview with Dave Sudbury). Frank’s Blues Run The Game is excellent, as are I Never Did Sing You A Love Song and his final number The Glory Of Love.
He’s a tad irreverent, jocular, fully committed to the craft of the song. His set, at the request of McNiff who cut his teeth in London at Jones’ open mic nights in Clapham years ago, attracts considerably more response from the crowd than a support slot usually gets. Rightly so; for some of us, it’s a privilege just to see him play. He wanders off through the crowd carrying his guitar as if he’s just played to three people around a campfire; I get the feeling he’d have been just as happy to do that, too.
Case Hardin are the rock to Jones’ paper. Pete Gow and the band troop on to Woody’s This Land is Your Land, grab the Borderline by the scruff of the neck and let go an hour later with little time to breathe in-between. Apt opener A Day At The Races has a beautiful a-capella moment a third of the way in, after which the song explodes. Pete’s angular stance and energetic delivery make him the centre of attention, but he is ably flanked by the coolly efficient Jim Maving on guitar and Tim Emery, one half of the follicly challenged rhythm unit on bass (who I swear was wearing a pair of white brothel creepers, but I could be wrong). Andy Bastow tub-thumps with elan at the rear of the stage and they are joined by their studio keyboard man Mike Wesson, a rare and welcome outing.
First To Know benefits from Wesson’s ivory-tinkling and he adds stabs of Hammond to the stomping rocker Days Stay Longer, bullied into a clean and clinical 4/4 by Bastow. The crowd are up and the songs are engineered to elicit maximum effect with staged crescendo-style endings. After a brief pause in intensity, they play three straight from their album PM. Dragging The River is just Pete and Mike; Pete confirms Lady Hill owes a nod to his youth and introduces Barbara Bartz on fiddle to round out the full band on this key album number. Equally delightful is Three Beautiful Daughters with its haunting chorus, ‘She said she named them after hurricanes / Like the man who blew into her life / And then blew out again’. A gloriously punchy Polaroid maintains the attack and before you know it they’re playing the set closer, a romp through Three For The Road from 2008s Some Tunes For Charlie Spencer.
Such sustained attack on the senses is guaranteed to whip the crowd up and Case Hardin are rewarded with the loudest cheers of the night, but their approach isn’t shock and awe; there are colours and shades and variance of mood within the music that, even in an hour, are sufficient to convince you of their considerable talent for taking you on a journey. And we all like to travel, right?
Jason Mcniff and his Lone Malones have been gaining warm appreciation and critical plaudits for a long time now. He’s been hit with the Dylan stick more times than he’s probably comfortable with – as burdens go, it’s a standard no-one should be purposefully associated with, but the media does love a comparison – more on that later. God Knows Why We Dream is his fifth album (notwithstanding 2008s In My Time compilation) and picks up where 2011s April Cruel left off.
And yes, as they roll gently into the opening number the late 60s troubadour references do bubble to the surface; a hint of Country here, a pinch of beatnik folk there, a studied and stately medium pace the default position. Mcniff’s voice permeates the space like exhaled smoke, there and gone in seconds but leaving the merest trace, floating in and out of the equally buoyant arrangements. Shuffle beats, fiddle accents (from Barbara Bartz, taking to the stage for her second stint) and some lovely interwoven guitar parts combine in a comforting, if somewhat safe, set of influences.
Conversation is kept to a minimum. When Jason does speak in-between songs, a surprisingly soft, quiet voice just about transfers through the mic to the back of the room, another sign that the dial has been turned down after Case Hardin. It’s also representative of the difference in styles between the two bands, and can’t help but slightly stall the momentum of the evening that had built until this point. No matter; the quality of the music and its reproduction is enough to warrant any come down irrelevant. A note on those arrangements, too, some of the finest per song I’ve seen live this year; always engaging, full of twists and turns but never at the expense of the overall song structure – clever stuff.
The musical MO is distinctly US rather than UK based, despite the subject matter retaining a particularly English bent. Witness the folky charm of Brockdish, a song celebrating a small village in Norfolk. Another is introduced, surely tongue-in-cheek, with the claim that literary fans will recognise multiple references to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I look around to reassure myself I’m not surrounded by teenagers with fake swords. Coming Back To Life, a set highlight, ruminates on that quintessentially English pursuit, nostalgia.
The mid-Atlantic hybrid works well and does much to set Jason apart from the comparisons, but if you twisted my arm (oh, go on then), my overriding impression is not the quiet, read-between-the-lines strength of early Mr. Zimmerman, but the blue-suited and booted, perpetually young Grievous Angel. To be compared to either is both a blessing and a curse, and Jason and his band are more than good enough to plough their own furrow. It’s a wonderful evening of contrasts, from legends of one scene to scene-makers of another; three headliners in one.
Review by: Paul Woodgate