A couple of new posts on the book blog - including a review by John Bentham for the Tiger Folk newsletter.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Bert Jansch is dead and that is both a very sad loss and a great shock as it had seemed that he was up and about again, recovered from his initial problem with lung cancer. There you go... Bert was a big fixture in my younger life, helping me, (after Bob Dylan) convert to an interest in folk/acoustic music and an engagement with the Brit folk scene of the sixties which for a brief few years was actually a cool place to inhabit, mainly because of Bert and his sidekick John Renbourn and a couple of other faces from the Soho scene, centred round Les Cousins in Greek Street but taking in the old Scots Hoose pub at the top of Old Compton Street where I saw him perform some stunning sets with a nonchalant, tousled grace. There were bad nights, apparently. Too much booze and rumours of darker areas, the whole romantic troubadour schtick. But I don't remember seeing any: the occasional wobble but no more. Maybe this is selective, but Bert was probably no more or less of a raker than the rest of us – and we were legion. The music was the main hit: he had, after all, written the late Buck Polly's epitaph after he went down to smack – 'Needle of Death,' hardly a celebration of opiate abuse. But all this was and is irrelevant in the larger sweep of things...
The music. Bill Broonzy is always quoted as a big influence but alongside that, I always wondered if somewhere down the line he had copped an ear to Scrapper Blackwell's percussive acoustic guitar leads from those classic blues tracks with Leroy Carr in the twenties and thirties – that snapping hit on the strings which gave his playing such an edge. Maybe not – maybe he figured it out for himself. But there was a lot of blues – and jazz – in his playing. Listen to the seminal 'Bert and John' where Jansch and John Renbourne blend their guitars into a new style that could go anywhere. Called 'folk baroque' – which always seemed too pretty and limiting to me, but we need our labels, I suppose. Bert was also, in my book, an underrated singer who knew how to place a song over his unique guitar accompaniments, maybe not the most technical of vocalists, but what is technique? It is there to serve the song, and Bert had an intuitive feel for whatever he sang, his slightly gruff delivery giving a vibrato-less edge that cut through to the essence, the emotional weight balanced just right. Never over-emoting, which especially suited his renditions of traditional material, as well as his own material... His voice was a paradox that mirrored his persona – intimate and yet with a certain distance. Down to earth, yet possessing a certain mystique... Returning to his guitar playing, yeah, sure, no doubt he copped some licks from Davy Graham, as who didn't? – but he had rapidly developed his own style and Bert was a much better singer, whose records stand up better as well, in my opinion. Davy, for all his hubristic wonder, lives on in my memory as primarily a live performer, erratically brilliant, with one classic album that he made with Shirley Collins - tellingly, a singer - the rest unfortunately, for me, coming nowhere near capturing his magic on stage. Screw the comparisons anyway. They were both unique, as was and is John Renbourn who came at the music from another angle. Put it all together and you have a style that flows out of the narrow confines of 'folk' into something new and vibrant. A fusion that meant something, as opposed to much of the vacuity performed under that name when jazz met rock (Miles Davis excepted)...
I loved Bert's solo sets and his duets with John R. Memories of nights down Les Cousins mesmerised by the crisscrossing dance they created. But maybe the band Pentangle took the heights of their influences and originalities and expanded them to a different level to create a music that looked back to folk roots without being overtly ridiculous, irrelevant or twee and forwards to the present and future. We all have our prejudices – with regard to 'folk' music plus rhythm section and some amplification, I rate Pentangle very highly as the ones who got it best in the U.K. Fairport, for me, forever lumpy, clumping around like a bunch of cider drunks at a bad barn dance, only redeemed by the sublime Sandy Denny when she was with them. Pentangle were almost emblematic of the Les Cousins cool strain of music that came out of London at that time, jazzy, subtle, blending the guitar styles into the bass and drums to take Bert and John's playing to new exploratory spaces. Although by the time they were coming together, they had moved up the road a bit to the Horseshoe pub on Tottenham Court Road – probably for spatial reasons as much as anything else – bass, drums, guitars and singer would have been a crush down in Les Cousins. And then on to greater glories... But I still cherish the fading memories of that scruffy old crucible of the new on Greek Street where I first was enchanted by Bert.
And Pentangle came back recently, if only for a brief shot, now that one of the points on the star has disappeared, not as nostalgia but a vital force still, if the reviews are to be believed. Coupled to Bert's resurgent profile, maybe there is some small consolation in the thought that he died at the top his game, after several years of refound fame and recognition. Maybe.
Wednesday, October 05, 2011
Can't really afford it - but now the book has been published, I feel that I should treat myself. And my favourite festival over the last few years has been the Brighton bash: 'Colour out of Space.' Last year it did not happen due to various reasons and there was deep sadness in my autumn. The previous couple of years - see reviews for 2008 here, here and here/2009 here, here and here - I'd gone down to Brighton for stimulating, exciting, weekends with loads of musics that I really like and some I encountered for the first time at a well run extravaganza, great sound good, great organisation, in a cool location. This year apparently the festival will split between the Sallis Benney theatre (afternoons) and the Old Market, Hove (evenings). Full details out later this week, apparently and you can get an early bird inclusive weekend ticket for a mere £25 (link on festival web site - I'm getting lazy). Been a hermit recently for various reasons so I looking forward to having my ears/brain/eyes stretched.