The 12 Bar Club is a gem of a venue.
Tucked away down Denmark Street, a road filled with music history, and a stone’s throw from the bright young things of the Astoria, it is a warren of tiny rooms and intimate bars with a stage barely large enough to host a drum kit, let alone the drummer who needs to sit behind it and the guitarists needed to make him a band.
For performers it’s a difficult venue to get right. Too quiet and you’ll be lost, so close to the audience that you can hear their every breath and be drowned by their conversation. Too loud and you’ll drive them away. It takes precision planning to pitch a performance just right. To Jason McNiff’s credit, he manages it perfectly.
Showcasing songs from his new album while avoiding the trap of reproducing it in its entirety, he sounds rockier here than on record, which might be a trick of the space, making his sound fuller because there is so little space to fill. Accompanied by brushed percussion and bass, his own guitar plugged in all evening, his gentle, breathy folk rock is well suited to the indoor venue. Something more acoustic might have yearned for the outdoors.
He begins with a new, untitled song, a brave move when he’s got a new album to promote and one that shows both confidence in his ability and comfort in his surroundings. Three of the four new songs from In My Time, an album that itself showcases his talents from the last decade are present and accounted for (Lost My Way, Pilgrim Soul and his take on the traditional Bella Ciao), along with three others from the album (Hills of Rome, Soho and In Our Time). The rest of the set is filled with covers: Marissa Nadler‘s Famous Blue Raincoat and I Ribella Della Montagna, by the Italian folk band Modena City Ramblers.
McNiff does what folk musicians do best, taking the genre’s heritage and reforming it in his own image while also adding to it. Folk has always been a musical form that looks backwards as well as to the future and the best folk musicians are the ones who best understand this dynamic.
This is what makes this evening such a success. Covers by folk troubadours from around the world, new arrangements of songs that go back decades, self-penned titles from across three old albums and a new one, combined into a set that’s opened by a new song, pointing towards the future while fully embracing the past. Now, bring on a summer festival and a warm field and the circle will be complete.