Last Friday night was a night that I had been anticipating for a very long time. After two illness-related cancellations in the last two years, legendary Scottish guitarist Bert Jansch finally made it to Pittsburgh, one of only a handful of US performances this fall. The man should need no introduction, but for the unfamiliar, Bert Jansch came to prominence in the British folk and blues revival of the 1960’s, both as a solo artist and a member of the jazz/folk fusion group Pentangle. His playing and songwriting have been enormously influential in the folk world and beyond, and his praises have been sung by everyone from Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page (who pinched Bert’s arrangement of the traditional “Blackwaterside”, and without crediting him) to Neil Young, for whom Bert served as opening act on his last tour.
On this latest trek, Bert was headlining, and his support was Pegi Young (Neil’s wife) and her band, The Survivors, who were all seasoned west coast session musicians. The setting was the First Unitarian Church, which proved a great sounding venue for both Pegi Young’s country rock and Bert’s solo acoustic set. I wasn’t sure how many people would be attending the show, so I purchased tickets well in advance, not wanting to chance a sell-out. As it turns out, there were a fair number of empty pews that night, which I considered mind-boggling… this was Bert Jansch!!! How many times was he going to come back to Pittsburgh?! I didn’t dwell on it for very long… being a friend of the promotor, I knew that Bert would get paid no matter who showed up, and the modest crowd (100-125 people, maybe?) made for a memorable, intimate night.
Pegi Young’s music wasn’t exactly my cup of tea; kind of a breezy country rock sound, with a few hot Telecaster leads and a lot of buried-in-the-mix Wurlitzer. They all seemed to be having a great time, though, and generally everything sounded very fine in that church. I thought the highlight of their set was a surprising soul version of Devendra Banhart’s “The Body Breaks”, which took me a few moments to recognize.
After the Survivors wrapped up, there was about a ten minute break before Bert ambled out onto the stage, to a warm round of applause. I was relieved that he looked healthy, and hoped that his voice and his energy level had not been negatively affected by his recent cancer bout. My fears were put to rest, as Bert turned in a long, spell-binding set, his voice and his playing as strong as they’ve been in a long time. He opened with the somber “Katie Cruel”, followed by “It Don’t Bother Me”, “Blackwaterside”, and his classic rendition of “Rosemary Lane”. The songs from 2006’s The Black Swan were particularly moving, especially that album’s updated version of “A Woman Like You” (which originally appeared on Birthday Blues), “High Days”, and the heartbreaking traditional “The Old Triangle”. Bert also played a recently written blues called “Duckin’ and Divin'”, which he said was inspired by shows that he played with UK tabloid sensation Pete Doherty.
I wasn’t so much surprised by what Bert played as by what he didn’t play… I was amazed that Davy Graham’s “Anji” didn’t make an appearance (though I’m sure Bert has to give that one a rest once in a while), not to mention “Strollin’ Down The Highway” and “Runnin’, Running From Home”. Bert didn’t seem to touch on the recently reissued Crystalis records at all, which also surprised me, considering that they are his most recent releases. It didn’t really matter, though, since everything he did play was done so well. I’ve never been crazy about his cover of Jackson C. Frank’s “Carnival”, or the original for that matter, but he did no disservice to “Blues Run The Game”, one of the most influential songs of the British folk and blues revival. Indeed, “Blues…” is one of those songs that almost every player from that era has made their own, and Bert’s version is wonderful, as are versions by Paul Simon, John Renbourn and Wizz Jones.
After the set and encore, most of the crowd quickly filed out of the church, but my friends and I hung around, hoping to get a chance to meet the man. My fiancé Minette was egging me on, “Go find him! Go find him!”, which made me feel more shy and nervous than I typically would… I really wanted to meet Bert, but I didn’t want to stalk him! Minette and our friend Jennifer took a turn around the church, for Jen was determined to meet Spooner Oldham, who played keys in Pegi Young’s band. After a few minutes of talking to friends, I went looking for them, only to find them near the stage, just a few feet from Bert! We waited for a moment while Bert chatted with a few fans, and soon it was my turn to shake his hand and say hello. I told him how long I had been a fan, and how much I enjoyed the show (what else does one say in these situations?) and he was nice enough to patiently pose for a series of blurry pictures, and finally the flash shot below (please excuse my creepy, red-eye-corrected eyeballs!)
After all was done, Minette, my musical partner David and I went to one of our favorite watering holes to have a couple pints and talk about the show, all agreeing that it surpassed our expectations. It was a magical night, and I hope I have many more opportunities to see, hear and talk to Bert Jansch, one of the most important musical figures in my life.