Two summers ago, when this blog was a good bit more active than it is now, I thought I would swing for the fences and try to get an interview with Stefan Grossman, one of my all-time acoustic guitar heroes. Stefan wasn’t the first folkie, finger-picking guitarist that caught my ear… I had previously spent a good bit of time listening to Paul Simon, Nick Drake and Donovan. When my friend Michael turned me on to Bert Jansch, that was it. I was, and remain, an absolute fiend for British guitar music, a story that Stefan plays an appreciable part in. Continue reading
Well, I’ve had myself a very busy year thus far… lots of travelling, playing, recording etc and it has resulted in a shortage of new material here on Work & Worry. I’ve amassed quite a backlog of very worthy discs for review consideration, and now that I’m determined to get back on that journalistic horse, one release in particular looms larger than most: a triple-disc set of previously unheard recordings from one of the most important fingerstyle guitarists of all time, Davy Graham. Many consider Graham to be “ground zero” for the guitar-centric British folk and blues revival of the early sixties, and indeed it is hard to imagine that landscape without his influence. Legendary guitarists like Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Wizz Jones, and a host of others have expressed a debt of gratitude to the man who is widely considered to be the first known practitioner of DADGAD tuning, an innovation that has had a massive affect on not only solo acoustic guitar playing, but also the continuing evolution of traditional Irish and Scottish music… but Graham’s reputation is based on so much more, like his introduction of Baroque-inspired counterpoint on the folk guitar (“Anji” to this day is still considered a total game changer) and his expansive use of musical motifs from every possible source, from traditional British Isles tunes to American folk, blues and jazz, to mysterious modal compositions from the orient and beyond. Continue reading
World Behind Curtains is the second album by Israeli guitarist and composer Yair Yona. His debut effort, Remember, was a charming nod to the work of American pickers like Glenn Jones and the late Jack Rose, with Yona building on those guitarists’ post-Takoma palette with a few indie rock touches and some ensemble playing to fill out the sound. Well if Remember sounded full, World Behind Curtains is bursting at the seams! Throughout the disc, Yona’s fiery acoustic fingerpicking is augmented by lush orchestration and carefully arranged instrumental interplay, ranging from the tender, to the sinister, to the ambitiously cinematic.
The tender: First single “It’s Not The Heat, It’s The Humidity” finds Yona in Bert Jansch mode, and the guitarist says that the track was inspired by Jansch’s 1979 masterpiece Avocet. It’s not hard to make that comparison, especially at the beginning of the track where Yona dances around the chord roots, sprinkling in some modal ornamentation and basically nailing Bert’s thumb-picked sound. When Yona is accompanied by Shira Shaked on piano, though, the piece really begins to soar… and when the two players are joined by a chorus of strings, “It’s Not The Heat…” sounds like nothing less than a full-on, big-budget Joe Boyd production. It’s a striking step forward for Yona.
The sinister: There is a foreboding quality to opener “Expatriates”, one that seems to echo the tension that is ever-building in Yona’s part of the world. As the track goes on, the twelve-string acoustic is swallowed up by caterwauling electric guitar noise, and this howling, haunted atmosphere reminds me of Japanese psych-rock heroes Ghost. Later in the disc, “Mad About You” comes out of the gate with tightly wound, energetic strumming before retreating to it’s moody main body, which gradually builds in intensity, picking up speed and eventually unfurling into an insane courting dance. The orchestral players are the stars in this song, and though Yona’s guitar ties the whole thing together, it’s their instrumental filigree that propels the track. Erek Kariel contributed the ambitious arrangements on this tune. Continue reading
While I don’t get out on the road nearly as often as I’d like, it seems that for the last few years, I’ve been able to tour with some regularity… and though I normally relish these trips as an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts and tunes on the sometimes long drives between gigs, my last three outings have been cooperative tours with other musicians, which is really the more interesting way to go. This time out, I had the good fortune to spend a week with Chuck Johnson, in my opinion one of the coolest players recording today. Chuck had secured a small arts grant and was hitting the road to promote A Struggle, Not A Thought, his debut solo LP on the Strange Attractors Audio House label. I’ve been following Chuck’s music ever since his appearance last year on the amazing Beyond Berkeley Guitar compilation, and was really excited to spend some quality time with the man, exploring each others perspectives on our tool of choice, the steel-strung acoustic guitar. Throw in our mutual friend Trevor Healy, not only a talented luthier but a fantastic fingerpicker in his own right, and we had ourselves a week-long guitar bro-down of epic proportions! Having interviewed both men for the release of BBG, I knew that they would be thoughtful and intelligent travelling partners, and alas the short time we spent playing shows together passed far too quickly.
For me, this particular trip started with a whimper: having played a house party the night before and getting to bed in the 3am area, I was not able to rise in time to catch my 7am Megabus from Pittsburgh to New York City, where I was supposed to meet up with Chuck and Trevor to start my leg of the tour. I wasn’t actually on the bill in NYC, but was planning to concentrate on getting photos and videos for this here blog, and I was looking forward to visiting the Zebulon venue for the first time. As it was, it gave me an extra day to pack properly and to practice, which was welcome… but it also meant that I’d have to figure out how I planned to get from Pittsburgh to Cambridge the next day for our gig at Zuzu. I decided to rent the tiniest car that Budget offered (and my budget afforded), which turned out to be a Chevy Aveo. Tiny it was, for my dreadnought case didn’t even fit in the trunk! It mattered little, though, since I’d be leaving the car in Boston and travelling in Chuck’s rental the rest of the trip. I spent that grey, rainy Monday traversing Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and finally gunning it across the Mass Pike to get to the gig with a little time to spare. Continue reading
Scottish folk musician Bert Jansch, a founding member of the band Pentangle and a well-known guitarist in his own right, has died at the age of 67. Jansch, who had cancer, passed away in the early hours of Wednesday morning at a hospice in Hampstead, north London.
Born in Glasgow in 1943, the musician recorded his first album in 1965 and his last, The Black Swan, in 2006. Between 1967 and 1973 he was part of acoustic group Pentangle, best known for their 1970 hit single “Light Flight”. John Renbourn, Jacqui McShee, Danny Thompson and Terry Cox were the other original members of the band, whose albums included Basket of Light and Solomon’s Seal. The group reformed in 2008 after receiving a lifetime achievement honour the previous year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. As a solo artist, Jansch received his own lifetime achievement accolade at the same event in 2001.
A scheduled solo show at the Edinburgh Festival later that month was cancelled due to the singer’s ill health. Speaking to The Guardian last year, Jansch – who is survived by his wife Loren – said he was “not one for showing off”. But he admitted that his guitar-playing “sticks out” – a skill that once prompted Neil Young to put him on the same level as Jimi Hendrix.
Booking agent John Barrow, who helped the musician stage shows throughout his career, said he would remember Jansch as a “hard-working musician” and “a great man”.
“He was very quietly spoken,” he told the BBC. “People used to say to me, ‘he doesn’t talk much, does he?’ But when he could play the guitar like that, why should he be talking?”
Rest in peace, Bert. We loved you very much.
All apologies, I’ve fallen very behind on my reviews this year… though it’ s not due to a dearth of worthy releases! Since it’s been a little while since I’ve gushed about the legendary Bert Jansch, I thought I would talk about his latest release, In Concert, 1980, out now on SGGW. From what I understand, this show had already made the rounds on the VHS circuit (thanks Yair!) but this new issue, part of Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Artistry series, features bonus footage from a second concert, as well as a short documentary entitled A Man and His Songs. The material and performances on offer here nicely bridge the gap between Jansch’s classic solo period of the mid ’60s and the sober, welcome renaissance of recent years… and for that I consider it a document of utmost importance… but In Concert is also a rare glimpse of Jansch at his collaborative best, playing both new compositions and compelling arrangements of old favorites, with players who not only have the chops to keep up with the unpredictable Scottish guitar hero, but also carry a genuine affection for the man and his art.
The Bert Jansch Conundrum was a loose sort of group that Jansch formed in the late 70’s, presumably to add a little muscle to his sound and recreate the vibe of some of his albums from that decade. Auxiliary musicians in those years included Rod Clements, Mike Piggott, and the two men who join Jansch for this concert, mandocellist Martin Jenkins (who left his unmistakable stamp on 1979’s fascinating Avocet) and demure electric bassist Nigol Portman-Smith. This trio is a relatively tight one, and most of the tunes follow a similar presentation : Bert singing lead and chording, while Jenkins keeps the melody flowing on violin or mandocello and sings backup. Portman-Smith’s understated yet bouncy bass does a great job of holding down the low end, and these men do keep quite a solid rhythm, despite the lack of any percussion. Continue reading
I stumbled upon this short collection whilst browsing Bandcamp recently, and I’m glad I did. Sean Siegfried is a UK-based guitarist who professes an appreciation for the work of Bert Jansch, Nick Drake, John Fahey and Dave Evans. Though I don’t hear much of Evans in Siegfried’s playing (maybe a smidgen during closer “Asphalt”) he does well in evoking the other three… “Sam’s Brewery” and “Passionate Rag” nail Fahey’s American Primitive style, with familiar tempos and boom-chick bass. Siegfried gets into more interesting territory on “Apples In Winter”, which has hints of both classical guitar and contemporary fingerstyle. Though this waltz can become a little static at times, the guitarist does a nice job creating a somber, reflective mood.
“Compelled” is a distinctive, confident piece, and it puts me in mind of Duck Baker’s “Old World” (from Baker’s A Thousand Words album) with just a hint of early Renbourn thrown in.
With its Davy Graham-esque intro and strident second section “Ashill” may be my favorite track on the EP. Though the running time of Backwoods is quite short (6 tracks in about 15 minutes) Siegfried manages to put forward a lot of ideas… I look forward to hearing more from this young fingerpicker.