Bert Jansch: When the Circus Comes to Town -- by George Graham
(Cooking Vinyl Cook 092. As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/22/95)
It has been a long time since the English folk-rock style first came to these shores. It was at the tail end of the British invasion in the wake of the Beatles, and the music never hit the top of the charts here, but it has become one of the more durable styles to come out of the period. There were three main groups who began appearing with recordings around 1968 -- Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Pentangle. And despite anemic record sales in the US, all developed an enduring fan base here, and continue to have enough of a following in Britain that the three groups have continued on and off for over a quarter century. Fairport Convention has been the most active, owing mainly to the annual music festival they hold in Cropredy, England. Also they continue to record periodically -- with their most recent album, The Jewel in the Crown, one of their best in years, coming just a few months ago. Fairport founder Richard Thompson continues to win fans among successive generations, and has been a hero to music critics for years. Steeleye Span occasionally gets together, and the group's lead vocalist Maddy Prior released another excellent recording about a year ago.
Probably the least commercially successful in the US, but by my way of thinking, most musically interesting of the troika of Brit-folk bands was the Pentangle. The group brought together a pair of guitarists who had an interest in both very old British-isles folk and American blues, plus a jazz bassist, and a very distinctive soprano singer, Jacqui McShee, who was a contrast to the dusky altos who sang with the other groups.
The Pentangle has also been an on-again-off again affair. While it has been a while since the last Pentangle release, one of the group's founders, Bert Jansch has just brought forth with a solo album, his first to see release in this country in several years. It's called When the Circus Comes to Town.
The Scottish-born Jansch actually released his first album before the Pentangle's 1968 debut. He and the other Pentangle founding guitarist John Renbourn, were pioneers in what came to be called "folk-baroque" style, which traces its beginning back to a guitarist named Davy Graham, of whom Jansch was a student. A gruff-voiced but melancholy singer, Jansch is mainly known for his guitar work with the Pentangle. though his solo albums have proven to be very influential -- being cited as a source of inspiration by performers ranging from Led Zeppelin to Neil Young. While Jansch's guitar work gave the Pentangle much of its distinctive sound, he was also the group's most prolific songwriter and played a large role in the selection and arrangements of the traditional material the group recorded.
Over the years, Jansch's solo albums have become collectors items, most having been released in this country on small independent labels, some of whom have since gone out of business. He also recorded for Reprise Records, the Pentangle's US label in the early 1970s, but those records have also long been out of print.
Now the British label Cooking Vinyl has set up an American presence and is releasing an album by Jansch and several others by some the Queen's subjects who have a small but devoted American following.
For someone like myself who has been a fan of Jansch and the Pentangle since their first album, When the Circus Comes to Town proves to be one of Jansch's finest albums ever. While the Pentangle, especially in their early days, had a coherent and yet distinctive sound, Jansch has been less even in his output. Some of his earliest albums from the 1960s were outstanding, and his 1972 all-solo recording Rosemary Lane was brilliant, but some of his other efforts have incorporated some inappropriate backing musicians, or sometimes Jansch's vocals didn't come off as well. But on When the Circus Comes to Town, everything falls into place. The sound of the album is primarily acoustic including several completely solo tracks, there is some fine new material, and Jansch's vocals are at their melancholy best, with a quality that the late Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention often had -- seeming to be coming from another time and place. In a bit of a break from the past, the songs are all original, rather than including adapted traditional music.
Among the backing musicians are Colin Gibson and Liam Genocky -- the amusing CD booklet simulating an old fashioned circus poster fails to mention the instruments played by the two gentleman, but one can deduce that they comprise a rhythm section. Mike Piggot, a recent Pentangle member, is heard on fiddle, while among the backing vocalists is Christine Collister, another English folkie getting to be known in her own right.
The 14-song album begins with one of the solo performances, Walk Quietly By. The sound harkens back to Jansch's classic Rosemary Lane album. It's an oblique song about a small life, presented in Jansch's dolorous but haunting voice. <<>>
The first track with the supporting musicians is called Back Home, a nice song of homesickness. Despite the distinctly English sound of Jansch, there is a bluesy slide guitar added to the arrangement that gives the piece an interesting touch. <<>>
Jansch has always shown a little blues influence, which forms a considerable contrast to his "folk-baroque" style. Occasionally he puts the two together and the result can be very interesting. The phrase that comes to mind is vaguely spooky. No One Around on the new album is one of those oddly eerie love songs. <<>>
Another track with some blues influence is the title song When the Circus Comes to Town. A facet of the Pentangle's sound finds its way into the piece -- the jazzy rhythm. <<>>
Likewise highlight of the album is Just a Dream, a piece which is classic Bert Jansch in style. There is a slightly jazzy beat, interesting but vague lyrics, and a fiddle providing an element of traditional influence. <<>>
A more straightforward set of love-song lyrics comes on Honey Don't You Understand, a pleasant piece but not one of the album's strongest. <<>>
Jansch gets the most intentionally bluesy on Born with the Blues, which is another interesting contrast between his ornate guitar style, the blues influence filtered through a traditional English folk perspective, and Jansch's vocals which sound like low-down in some ancient misty castles. <<>>
The album contains one short solo instrumental in Jansch's trademark "folk-baroque" style. It's called The Lady Doctor from Ashington, and it's enjoyable, though the guitarist has done better in the past.
There are some three tracks with lyrics which in an earlier era could be called "protest songs." The closing piece, Living in the Shadows, is one such, lamenting the state of the world. Mark Ramsden is featured on the sax, which is also heard elsewhere. It's one part of the arrangement that seems a bit out of place on this record. <<>>
Fans of English folk, especially those who enjoyed the music of the Pentangle, will find Bert Jansch's new release When the Circus Comes to Town a most welcome recording. Not the most consistent of performers in terms of quality on his albums, Jansch turns out one of the finest works of his career, doing what he does so well, from his folk-baroque guitar, to his distinctive lyric-writing style, to his jazzy influence, to his vaguely spooky blues, along with vocals that are some of the best he has done on record. The result is some really fine listening, even for those who might not remember the Pentangle.
Sonically, the album is generally good, though there are a few flaws, such as some distortion on the opening track, and microphone technique that could be better on the acoustic guitar. But the recording is mercifully free of excessive studio effects and has a nice intimate quality.
Bert Jansch is one of the pioneers is what has become a very durable style, and this album is an excellent reminder of why this kind of music has stood the test of time so well.
This is George Graham.
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