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.
This month, Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop reissues two albums from the Kicking Mule Records catalog: Happy Traum’s American Stranger (1977) and The Bert Jansch Conundrum’s Thirteen Down (1979). Happy Traum and Bert Jansch are each singer-guitarists who launched careers during the sixties folk revival in the States and Britain, respectively. American Stranger and Thirteen Down provide glimpses of their work in the late seventies, an era when many folk singers were trying their luck at the introspective and potentially lucrative singer-songwriter market. Both men share a sophisticated approach to the guitar that, for each, distinguishes a repertoire of songs. Presumably, this is why both ended up releasing at least one record with Kicking Mule (a label specialized in guitar music), and also why I’ve opted to write about the reissues together.
In a BBC radio broadcast spotlighting Happy Traum, Grossman remarked:
“The sign of a truly great guitar player is not how complex he can play but, rather, that the sounds he produces are music… the forte of Happy Traum is that he can take a blues and arrange it in a rather simple fashion to produce a very lyrical and moving and very musical performance.”
The tunes on American Stranger bear out Grossman’s sentiments… clear and deliberate folk and blues guitar playing highlights the collection, and elevates Happy’s unaffected if somewhat plain-sounding vocal delivery. A variety of contributors, including John Sebastian on harmonica, lend accompaniments throughout, subtly building on Traum’s performances. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →