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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
BERT JANSCH with Paul Wassif, Beth Orton and Bernard Butler

The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, London
January 12th, 2007

I always get twitchy when I hear a phrase like “the British Folk tradition” echo across a restaurant before a gig. I could see them out of the corner of my eye – three lonely and friendless fifty-something men, Littlewoods slacks and pullovers, earnestly talking at each other like would-be preachers auditioning at a Wesleyan convention. “Did I tell you when I saw …”, “Of course if it wasn’t Graham then it’s not clear who…”, “and then he creates the impression of a modality that doesn’t belong to a diatonic scale…”, “I always said that without Renbourn he was nothing …”, “of course if only he was dead he’d be more famous than Nick Drake…”

On and on they droned until the bill arrived. Out came three draw-string purses and a meticulous bill-splitting operation began. To be frank I really really lost interest when they started calibrating exactly how much wine each had drunk from their solitary bottle. They left – anxious to get value for money by being in their seats as early as possible - and needless to say at the end of the evening they were the ones leading the muted cries of ‘Angie, Angie’. Ho hum.
Bert Jansch
I’m sure I’m not the only person who carries a hatful of Jansch songs around in my head – that most personal of all i-Pods that works on a fiendishly random shuffle. But at some point I’ll probably get Jansch almost every day, ‘Blackwaterside’, ‘Strolling down the highway’, ‘Running from home’ or ‘It don’t bother me’ with echoes of Jansch’s droning guitar and haunting nasal vocals. And of course there’s THAT tune, which like so many other spotty adolescents I spent hours trying to play, much to the distraction of my family. ‘Angie’ of course was pinched from Davy Graham who never experienced the relative commercial success of Jansch, which after the triumph of his earliest albums was cemented first by his partnership with fellow-guitarist John Renbourn and then through their association with the money-spinning folk-jazz combination Pentangle. Embraced as the acceptable face of the sixties by the establishment – well my Mum anyway - (their hit single ‘Light flight’ was the theme tune to BBC TV series Take Three Girls) I first saw them (and therefore Jansch) play in Solihull Civic Centre in about 1972, performing to an audience of neatly-dressed politely-clapping wealthy West Midlands Tories (Solihull, it should be remembered, was the Royal Burgh that banned then folk-singer and comedian Jasper Carrott from running a club within their hallowed boundaries). It was all a bit too sanitised for me at the time (even with Danny Thompson on the string bass), so apart from those songs that never got out of my head, I sort of lost touch with Jansch until 2000, when he released the outstanding Crimson Moon. In the intervening years he’d drunk so much that he became "as seriously ill as you can be without dying" (he did in fact undergo major heart surgery in 2005) as result cleaned up his act and embraced life, and in turn had been embraced by a new generation of guitarists such as Bernard Butler and Johnny Marr. Indeed for the past six years, as a mini-folk revival has bubbled away under the surface in the UK, Bert has been as cool as he was in the sixties.
And he’s released a new album, although he seems to have forgotten this as he doesn’t mention it once during the evening. It’s called The Black Swan and it’s quite excellent. It’s so Bert Jansch that it could have been made forty years ago (well, not quite, as the production is outstanding and very 21st century), in the same way that his eponymous debut album could have been made yesterday. He’s also brought some of the performers from Black Swan with him – slide guitarist Paul Wassif and singer Beth Orton, and from Crimson Moon and numerous subsequent gigs Bernard Butler. But he starts solo, very much in folk club mode (except that is for the over-amplified guitar which at times got so loud as to provoke cried of “turn it down” from some disgruntled Belsize Park resident) with ‘It don’t bother me’, ‘Going down the highway’ ‘Blackwaterside’ and ‘Rosemary Lane’.
Bert Jansch Black Swan
The Black Swan
At which point he could have packed up and I would have been just as happy as Larry. But he doesn’t; he sang a song for Victor Jara (and I don’t think I was the only person in the audience reaching inside my pocket for my Chile Solidarity Campaign badges), plays a wonderfully complex instrumental, ‘Downunder’, ‘My Donald’ from Crimson Moon, and from Black Swan ‘The old triangle’, a song about imprisonment and hanging which was used in early productions of Brendan Beehan’s ‘The Quare Fellow’, and which, Bert tells us, he first learnt many years ago in Edinburgh from Beehan’s brother Dominic. All the time Jansch is nervously apologising for the lack of guests on stage. Apparently he’s under the illusion that we’re here to see them, not him.
Bernard Butler joins for the end of the first set and plays beautifully on his semi-acoustic (Gibson? – I couldn’t quite see) on ‘Fresh as a sweet Sunday morning’, an old Pentangle tune ‘The Casbah’ and ‘Poison’, an old protest song for all the old protesters in the audience. Butler can be wonderfully melodic and his interplay with Jansch was subtle and well judged – guitar fans might also like to know that he was, as we say in the trade, “giving it some Bigsby”. The second set began with ‘Carnival’ the first bar of which brought rapturous applause from those who mistakenly thought it was going to be ‘Angie’. Paul Wassif played (amongst others) ‘Black cat blues’ and Robin Williamson’s ‘My pocket’s empty’, and a solo Jansch gave us ‘October song’ before being joined by a giggly Beth Orton who sang ‘Katie Cruel’ from Black Swan, and her own song ‘Safe and in your arms’ before Wassif and Butler reappeared for finale ‘Watch the stars’ and encore ‘When the sun comes up’. The audience were entranced (well, I was entranced) – Jansch left the stage as diffidently as he’d entered it, and the lights came up as the three Littlewood’s men vainly chanted for ‘Angie’ somewhere at the back.
Bert Jansch London And what would I say about the British Folk Tradition? Well at its worst it’s a myopic fantasy land of ‘golden age’ dreams fit only for superannuated social workers and sociology lecturers. At its best it’s vibrant, inventive, forward looking yet firmly grounded in its origins. Thankfully that is what we had from Mr Jansch and his chums (and the very interesting support, Scott Matthews). Five stars.
- Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

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