Many acoustic guitarists probably have some degree of acquaintance with the work of John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman, but for the unfamiliar, allow me to offer up a short history : After cutting his teeth in clubs during the British folk and blues revival of the early 60’s, Renbourn recorded a series of classic solo albums on the Transatlantic label, and also began a fortuitous allience with Bert Jansch, resulting in their classic Bert and John duet album, and the influential folk-jazz group Pentangle. When that group initially dissolved (it would reform in assorted incarnations over the years, centering around singer Jacqui McShee… Renbourn would be an occasional participant), the guitarist delved ever-deeper into folk and blues forms, as well as jazz and ancient Medieval music. On LPs like The Hermit and The Black Balloon, Renbourn developed a sophisticated compositional style that, while complex, also overflowed with beauty and nuance.
Stefan Grossman started as a determined young blues devotee from New York City, studying under the tutelage of Reverend Gary Davis. Grossman himself quickly became something of a guitar guru… having a keen ear, and having learned first-hand from many of the original blues masters, Grossman began authoring instructional books aimed at disseminating classic American acoustic guitar styles, from country blues to ragtime. After a short stint at architecture school, he headed over to Europe, where he lived and worked for twenty years, starting the legendary Kicking Mule record label (alongside Takoma Records cofounder Ed Denson) which was instrumental in launching the careers of world-class guitarists like Duck Baker, Peter Finger, Dave Evans and Ton Van Bergeijk.
Grossman toured regularly, sometimes on double-bills with Renbourn. Fate stepped in when, through a promoter’s error, it was advertised that these two legends-in-the-making would be performing guitar duets. Though they hadn’t worked as a duo before, the guitarists decided to give it a go, and the seeds were planted for a series of fantastic Grossman/Renbourn albums. The playing on albums like Under The Volcano, as well as their eponymous debut, is a fascinating melting pot of European and American musical styles, and the pair achieves a sound as elegant as it is expansive. Though their individual contributions to the world of guitar playing had been weighty before their partnership, these duet albums served to take both guitarists’ playing to new heights, and their enduring compositions still sound fresh today.
This review celebrates the deluxe reissue of John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman In Concert, which features both men playing at the peak of their powers, back in the early 80’s. The CDs are a combination of shows from Portland, Oregon and Sydney, Australia, while the video segments were filmed at Ohio University. In Concert has always been a favorite of mine, as it features a nice mixture of material, running the gamut from ragtime to boogie-woogie, beautiful Irish melodies, traditional Scottish and English folk songs, and of course the aforementioned original duets and solo compositions. My original LPs have definitely gotten a workout, and with the addition of the DVD concert, I was quite excited to experience this new presentation.
Starting with the packaging, it was clear that Grossman and his team at the Guitar Workshop took great care in preparing this release. The discs come in a high-gloss, six-panel eco wallet, and the picture of the two guitarists on stage, which originally appeared in the gatefold of the double LP, has been colorized, now populating the front cover. Though the older Kicking Mule LPs and many of their Shanachie reissues featured exotic illustrations and gorgeous hand-lettering, recordings issued through Grossman’s label have tended to be quite utilitarian (from an art-direction standpoint) usually consisting of just a photograph of the artist and the ubiquitous “Cooper” (think Pet Sounds) typeface. The In Concert reissue, with its bright colors and environmentally friendly packaging, brings SGGW into the 21st century, and it’s a welcome development… In actuality, Grossman has been modernizing the presentation of his products in subtle (but significant) ways for some time now… many of the newer CDs also feature printable PDF files of the guitar tablature, and just recently, Grossman began offering a very attractive digital download service for all of his company’s video guitar lessons.
Disc one of In Concert begins with a couple of fine duets. The pair jump right into their original “Looper’s Corner”, a prime example of the Renbourn/Grossman brand of virtuosic, harmonically rich picking… this uptempo number manages to be spritely yet nice and bluesy at the same time. Renbourn hangs around for a reading of Charles Mingus’ “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers”, which takes the harmonic sophistication up another notch before breaking into some flashy solo sections from Grossman. The remainder of the first disc is all solo Stefan, and here the virtuoso blues scholar also dons the hat of the entertainer… with a wink and a smile, Grossman effortlessly tears through some classic blues and ragtime material, all the while calling out instructions in the fashion of his blues forebears (“Descend that bass! Tickle those strings!”).
Stefan Grossman – “Twelve Sticks”
While numbers like “Twelve Sticks” and his original “Tightrope” explode from the soundhole, Grossman shows a commitment to variety with gentle performances of a few Irish melodies (“Pretty Girl Milking A Cow”, “Sheebag An Sheemore”) and an affectionate reading of “Cocaine Blues”, which Grossman learned directly from Reverend Davis. Grossman tries his damnedest to get some audience participation going during the medley “Cincinnati Flow Rag/New York City Rag/Hot Dogs”, but alas, this particular audience doesn’t seem to have the gift of rhythm on their side… regardless, everyone seems to be having a ball as Grossman closes out his set.
To take a short detour… there are some segments of the guitar community that don’t like to recognize the quality of Grossman’s work. It’s no secret that exoticism and mystery are the fuel that propels the popular music world, and it might seem easy to write off someone like Stefan Grossman as, well, kind of a square… after all, how could this bespectacled, middle-class Jewish kid really play the blues? You have to live the blues, don’t you? You can’t just learn it by rote from some instructional book or LP! So speak the detractors…
I see things somewhat differently. What can’t be debated is that over the years, Grossman has been a missionary for the blues and the acoustic guitar, and he has never seen these as elite or exclusive clubs. In addition to contributing substantially to the amount of instructional material available on the subject, Grossman has been equally diligent in using popular mediums like DVD and the internet to give new life to archival audio and video performances, keeping the tradition alive and available for new generations of both guitar players and fans of the music they make. If he had done this alone, Grossman’s place among the most important figures in acoustic guitar would be secure.
Thing is, not only can the guy play… the guy can really play! Stefan has been known to encourage his students to “Play with balls!” which is a pretty good description of what happens when the man himself sits down with a guitar… bending and snapping the strings, raggin’, rollin’ and tumblin’ like nobody’s business… when Grossman is firing on all cylinders, the results are usually pretty fantastic! As mentioned already, Grossman knows that it’s important to not only have technical facility on his instrument, but to actually be an entertainer, to present tunes both familiar and new with a sense of flare and excitement… To concentrate solely on fleet fretwork would be to miss the feeling of the thing, especially with regard to the blues, and so Grossman, and John Renbourn, for that matter, have always brought a healthy amount of style, an ambitious repertoire, a sense of adventure, and maybe most importantly, a sense of fun to their playing. Not many pickers would have the charisma to pull off the cheeky musical theatre of disc one’s “Make Believe Stunt”, but Grossman does it… and though he may not have emerged from the Mississippi delta, there’s no doubt that the blues is in the man’s blood. Okay, I’ve probably made my point! If you don’t dig what this fellow is doing, you probably wouldn’t be this far into a review like this one, now would you?
Back to the task at hand… Disc two begins with Renbourn’s solo set, which he kicks off with a pair of closely related Brit-folk standards : his own “Judy”, and the number that inspired it, Davy Graham’s signature “Anji”. Both tunes are played at break-neck speed, which is consistent with a lot of Renbourn’s playing at this time, especially at concerts. Whereas someone like Bert Jansch had a “hyperactive” phase at the very beginning of his career, Renbourn seems to have gone the opposite direction! This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the track. Even though songs like “Judy” or “The Mist Covered Mountains of Home” sound a little rushed at the faster pace, it does give a nice lift to Archie Fisher’s “Lindsay”, as well as the traditional “So Early In The Spring”. In addition to the songs already mentioned, some of which are attached to other tunes via medleys, Renbourn turns in confident performances of “Great Dreams In Heaven”, which he adapted from the playing of Bahaman guitarist Joseph Spence, and Booker T’s “Sweet Potato”. Both of these songs have endured in Renbourn’s live repertoire, and these versions are as fine as any.
John Renbourn – “Sweet Potato”
After Renbourn’s solo set, it’s back to the duets, and there are some real gems. “Bonaparte’s Retreat/Billy In the Lowgrounds” has some great, down-home picking, and the duo tip their hats to Mingus once again with “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”. Grossman sets up “Candyman” by pretending that a Bee Gees cover is in the offing, and proceeds to sing his parts in a silly falsetto, with Renbourn trying not to crack up. One of the last songs of the night is the original “Spirit Levels”, which finds the duo trading improvisational sections, first over Renbourn’s atmospheric jazz chording, and then over a chugging rhythmic motif from Grossman. I’ve found that, on occasion, Grossman tends to overdo it with all the pentatonic runs in this piece… but the performance on In Concert has a good pacing to it, keeping it from getting repetitive. “Spirit Levels” was the first joint composition from the duo that I ever heard, and I’ll never forget how exciting and unique it sounded, even through the little speaker of a cheap portable turntable… I’ve been a fan ever since.
Much of the material from the live discs is also covered on the DVD, though there are some songs unique to the video portion (Renbourn’s “Whitehouse Blues” has always been a fan favorite). It is interesting to compare the performances between the CDs and the DVD, the video segments having been filmed about a year earlier… “Looper’s Corner”, for example, is discernibly looser on the video. The song is still fantastic, of course, and Renbourn puts a smile on Grossman’s face with some bluesy guitar soloing. Grossman’s solo “The Assassination of John Fahey” and “Tightrope” have no shortage of swagger, with the guitarist insistently thumbing and tugging his bass notes… how did this guy stay in tune??!
While Grossman adjusts his picking style (two fingers, three fingers, metal fingerpicks, thumb-picks, flat picks) depending on the song he’s playing and the sound he wants to achieve, Renbourn has historically stuck to a three-finger-and-thumb technique over the years, and as this DVD illustrates, that approach has served him well. His touch is as delicate as Grossman’s is powerful, and the Englishman effortlessly glides around the fretboard on tunes like his solo “The English Dance” and on the duet “Spirit Levels”. The format of this filmed concert mirrors that of the CDs… after a two-duet intro and solo sets from each player, the guitarists both take the stage to finish off with a longer set of duets. The show comes to a close with the loose and loopy “Take a Whiff On Me”.
Well, from the length and verbosity of this review, my affection for these two players is probably crystal clear… when I emailed Stefan Grossman to tell him that I was planning to take an in-depth look at this reissue, not even I imagined it would be this in depth! But if I was on a desert island (one equipped with a decent entertainment system) and had to choose a single recorded Grossman/Renbourn document, it might very well be In Concert. The performances are spirited, the material exciting and varied, and the sound quality rivals that of the original studio albums. In Concert is a fingerstyle tour de force, and it’s hard to imagine folk, blues or acoustic guitar fans coming away disappointed.