Monday 19 September 2016

Stephen Stills "Alone" (1991)

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Stephen Stills "Alone" (1991)

Isn't It So?/Everybody's Talkin'/Just Isn't Like You/In My Life/The Ballad Of Hollis Brown/Singin' Call/The Right Girl/The Blind Fiddler Medley/Amazonia/Treetop Flyer

Fans had been calling for an acoustic Stills album since time immemorial (well since at least 1969, possibly since the mid-1960s, which feels like the same thing sometimes when you see terrorism and Trump and war on the news every few minutes). After thirty-five-ish years of rockstardom, Stills finally listened to fans who'd been pestering him about making an album of 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' and recorded what is - to date - the only fully acoustic album of his career. The idea promised much, especially given that Stills' most recent acoustic song ('Haven't We Lost Enough?' from the previous year's CSN album 'Live It Up') was his best in years. Bells should have rung, birds should have sung, Pink Floyd should probably have come out of retirement and got it on by banging a gong - instead 'Stills Alone' disappeared to become arguably the hardest and most expensive of all the CSNY albums to track down (sorry about that). To this day even the most committed fans admit they can't get hold of this album, shrug their shoulders and say if it was any good they'd have heard about it by now and the tracks on the 'Carry On' compilation weren't much cop anyway, in a way even the critics would dare say about any other Stills album (well, maybe 'Right By You' if they'd come to it after seeing the trying-too-hard music video for the 'Stranger' single). So why is Stills Alone, the acoustic album so many fans dreamt of, not only alone but very much out in the cold?

Part of that is surely the timing: no one was asking for CSN solo product hot on the heels of the trio's 'Live It Up' album (even if it's pretty good, curious cocktail sausage munching album cover aside) and the Stills of 1991 wasn't the draw of Stills in 1971 or even 1981. In fact Stephen - once rightly hailed as one of the musical geniuses of his generation - has fallen so far down the star ladder he can't even get a decent record deal anymore and instead of Atlantic or CBS released this album as a one-off deal with Gold Hill Music (no doubt recommended to him by fellow Manassas man Chris Hillman, who released his Desert Rose Band records through the same label and - in an even bigger sign of outsold this one about twenty to one). Part of it is the album cover: for the first time Stills' busy Captain Manyhands lifestyle was catching up with him and he looks far older than his 46 years here while simultaneously dressed up to cash in on the (thankfully short-lived) 'lumberjack country' movement of the day. He sounds just as old across this record too, which is arguably the first to feature his more recent 'lived in' voice, which is just as emotional and expressive as ever but struggles with enunciation and precision compares to the days of old. Just as with the pop star trappings of 'Right By You' Stills looks incredibly uncomfortable - he was born to be a bluesman with folk roots, not a pop star no matter how much the record companies (even this record company) tries to think otherwise.

The worst of it, though, is that Stills doesn't seem to have cared too much about this record, recycling old songs from previous records (with even the four new songs sounding 'familiar'), finally giving a home to songs that had only appeared in concert and performing a record four cover songs - almost half the entire record. Though Stills hasn't made much fuss about it, it seems likely too that his hearing problems began around the time of making this record after too many years of amplified rock music (curiously at the exact same time his old partner Neil Young was suffering from Tinnitus after the world's loudest rock tour with Crazy Horse across 1991) - in other words this is an acoustic album out of necessity rather than inspiration. Note, for instance, how many of the songs are played on an 'electric' nylon-stringed acoustic guitar rather than the more usual 'pure' acoustic sound Stills always used before this (as a side note, this also makes the choice of cover song 'Everybody's Talkin' At Me but I can't heard a word they say' something of an in-joke). Considering that we're - just - into the CD age at this point, it also seems odd to report that this is Stills' shortest album, barely making the half hour mark (even the next shortest, 'Manassas Down The Road', runs twenty precious seconds longer). Stills himself doesn't seem that fussed by the contents either and has all but disowned it himself in the years since, never playing any of these songs in concert (except 'Treetop Flyer', which has been in the setlist for years). Let's put that in context: this isn't some Spice Girls let's-make-some-moolah-in-a-hurry act we're talking about here but Stephen Stills, the perfectionist's perfectionist, who would gladly spend 200 hours in the studio getting a song right, only to feel so inspired he's start another one in his lunch break. We don't know how long it took to make 'Stills Alone' from beginning to end, but it probably took less time in total than getting the drum-sound for the 'Manassas' album. Stills, the overdubbing master, adds at most an electric drum click-track and a few rainforest sound effects and for the most part not even that. No wonder 'Stills Alone' has somewhat got the 'short straw' after all these years and when most collectors learn how pricey it is they genuinely put it back on the shelf and save their money for something easier to get hold of, in this day and age probably a live Neil Young live album with real life snorting pigs.

There is, though, something to be said about having Stills let loose in your living room (or your car or wherever you happen to listen to your music) as openly vulnerable as this. 'Stills Alone' doesn't often get marks for bravery and it's probably not as courageous as running the whole first side of the debut Manassas LP into a genre-hoping exercise in eclecticism or breaking the rules of what you can do with a wah-wah pedal on the 'Super Session' LP, but it's brave for a 46-year-old former superstar nonetheless. Stills doesn't hide the fact he's got older - he's almost proud of it and the moments when he growls or misses the notes are arguably even more effective than the moments when he hits them spot on as usual. The lack of anything else here to hide behind also shows off Stills' acoustic playing - admittedly he made this in the wrong era when his hands and brain were slowing down so there's nothing even close to the league of a 'Suite:Judy' or a 'Helplessly Hoping' and indeed you spend some of the record helplessly hoping that Stills is actually going to make it to the end of the song. But he always does: even at less than his best and with one-take simple arrangements Stills is a player you can learn a great deal from and hearing his ideas stripped back to their basics brings out his inner bluesman, which is no bad thing. Especially on the stand-out covers 'Blind Fiddler Medley' and 'The Ballad Of Hollis Brown', in which we hear what a Stills born a century before and in an even deeper part of the blues belt than Texas might have sounded like. It could be, too, that the 'new' version of 'Singin' Call' and the suspiciously demo-like 'Amazonia' are both older songs, with the younger punchier Stills vocals rather than the deep growl of 1991. By and large though, fans sent through a time-warp here direct from 1969 would no doubt be upset at how things got so bad so fast (and wondered why Stills didn't make this sort of record sooner - a mid-1970s acoustic album around the time of the break-ups with Judy, Rita and Veronique in the manner of the 'Just Roll Tape' of 1968 would have been quite something to behold), but 'Stills Alone' isn't actually the wildcard it so often seems, being as brave and naked and intense as anything the Stills of old ever offered, if not quite as detailed or virtuoso. We like giving marks for bravery at the AAA, whatever the execution turns out like, and Stills Alone gathers a few extra points right here, whatever it loses in beauty or depth.

No, it's the songs where 'Stills Alone' falls down with nothing even in the same stratosphere as 'Haven't We Lost Emough?', not least because we've heard so many of them before - six of them if you're enough of a fan to have heard Stills in concert at any time since around 1976 with a fondness for early Dylan protest records. None of the songs here improve on the originals, with 'Singin' Call' (first released on 'Stephen Stills II' in 1971) swapping innocence and beauty for world-weariness and frustration, 'Do For The Others' (first released on 'Stephen Stills' in 1970) replacing a gorgeous folk-rock lilt for a simple note guitar pick and 'Know You Got To Run ('Stills II' again, via the opening half of CSNY's 'Carry On' from 1970) replacing either a haunting banjo lick or enthusiastic power-pop with a slow blues crawl. In addition, fans already knew Stills' cover of Freddy Neil's 'Everybody's Talkin' well from 'Stephen Stills Live' (1975) or bootlegs of the first CSN album and this slowed down sad lament isn't as cute as it once sounded when it was young and only a little bit fed-up, while concert favourite tale of Vietnam Vets turned bootleggers 'Treetop Flyer' seems to have had its wings clipped a little on re-entry compared to the original heights the song reached in the mid-1970s (still a mystery why this classic hadn't appeared on any of the albums from 'Illegal Stills' onwards though, where it would have been a highlight on any of them). Had we not been a fan enough to have heard any of these songs before then 'Stills Alone' might have impressed - but as it is this record was so obscure even on first release (with no tie-in tour and barely a mention of it since - and there's certainly been no re-issue since) that the few fans who bought it already knew Stills could do these songs better.

The album's reputation then rests on three covers and four new songs, to mixed results. On the plus side 'The Ballad Of Hollis Brown' reveals what Stills might have sounded like had we met him in his folk-club days before the Buffalo Springfield took off: exciting and mesmerising is the answer, with one of Dylan's better obscure tracks sounding as if it belongs in the Stills catalogue with its dark tale of depression and murder but also re-birth and renewal. Ditto 'Isn't It So?', a possible prequel to 'Panama' in which Stills tells us about his first love and coming of age - which is a nice song calling out for a full band arrangement. 'The Right Girl' too is a pretty song that deserves a makeover from the modern-day Stills and to sound young and vibrant again instead of slightly worn out as per here. 'Amazonia' nicks badly from Stills' own 'Fair Game' but its tale of tree-planting conservationism fills this album's 'latin' quotient well enough. The solo cover of The Beatles' 'In My Life' though isn't a patch on the version with added harmonies included on CSN's 'After The Storm' album in a few years time (never mind the fab four's fab original) and 'Just Isn't Like You' just isn't like Stills at all, being slow and clichéd and a little dull (though that might be the point, with Stills sounding as if he's telling his inner creativity to get a move on, thankyouverymuch). This album could and should have been so much more, with no end of blues or folk standards that would have perfect for this album and Stills' new growlier living room voice. However at the same time, 'Stills Alone' isn't quite the redundant money-making exercise so many people seem to think it is: Stills connects with the material on a good half of the album and even on the other half he tries his best and if he fails, well, at least he was brave enough to have a go.

It may be more than a coincidence that the general theme of the album seems to be lovable (sometimes unlovable) losers who don't seem to be connected to the rest of the world in some way. 'Isn't It So?' has the narrator desperately to learn about love, 'the secret that everyone knows' and wondering why it goes wrong for him so many times. 'Everybody's Talkin' finds the narrator unable to hear the many things everyone is trying to tell him, only the 'echoes in my mind'. 'Just Isn't Like You' might be addressed to a second person, but it sounds in places like a motivational prep-talk to someone who once had 'energy running through you' and is now fed-up and weary after one heartbreak too many. 'In My Life' is a song rightly recognised as celebrating moments from your past - but, especially in this slower version, sounds as much about the people wasted on the way as the ones who made it, with a sadness and grief that can only come from loss. 'The Ballad Of Hollis Brown' is a dark humoured tale of poverty where everyone loses the narrator-murderer finding salvation only when he turns on his family to take them away from the pain of life, only for them to be (possibly) re-incarnated scattered across the globe so they don't even have each other (well that's my interpretation; it's a Dylan song, so who knows what the author intended it to be about!) 'Singin' Call' cries out for a rest (even though that rest spells out doom on 'Just Isn't Like You') and recognises that the narrator is missing out on too much of life, damaging his relationships in the process and yet the narrator still can't bring himself to slow down, using what he feels in nature as inspiration for a song instead of living in the moment. 'The Right Girl' sounds like it's going to be a rare happy song, but it should come with the subtitle 'wrong timing' as the narrator regrets that he never gets to love the 'right girl' because she's too busy having a good time. The 'Blind Fiddler Medley' marries three songs about being poor and on the run with the warm-hearted reaching out of 'Do For The Others' the heart in the middle of this loneliness sandwich. 'Amazonia' is more about how the world is missing the point, with the world ignoring 'the forest for the trees' as poor people exploit the rainforest for a pittance and create global warming that will affect them worst of all. Finally, 'Treetop Flyer' tells the tale of a bunch of inventive Vietnam Veterans, ignored by their Government after coming home and unable to find jobs, seeking revenge by using their new-found skills of flying helicopters close to trees to carry out daring drug raids under the authority's noses. Though they're making the best of a tough situation, these too are 'outsiders' struggling to get by in a world that just isn't paying attention to them and which they don't quite understand - or is that the world doesn't them?

Apart from the last two songs, though, this is a notably inward-looking album for Stills and by far his most melancholy solo record. To understand why this album is quite so sad means digging into the debris of Stills marriage number two (or 'significant relationship number six' for those keeping count!) After the breakup of his marriage to Veronique Sanson in the late 1970s Stills had spent the better part of a decade alone, joking to CSN crowds about being the 'eligible bachelor of the group'. He surprised many by taking up a whirlwind romance with a Thai model named Pamela Ann Jordan in the mid-1980s, the two marrying in 1988 and having a daughter soon afterwards. Stills mentioned often in the publicity run-up to CSNY's 'American Dream' how in love he was and how things were going to be different this time, but sadly they weren't. The pair split 18 months afterwards, the despairing fallout from which can be heard on 'Haven't We Lost Enough?' and continuing on in this album's similarly structured new compositions. After so many years waiting for the 'one', finding out that she wasn't seems to have inspired a typical Stillisian binge of self-pity and neuroses, with a repeat of the run of songs heard after the splits from Judy Collins ('Bluebird Revisited'), Rita Coolidge ('Sugar Babe') and Veronique Sanson ('Myth Of Sisyphus', a song about being forever doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over). The trouble is that this Stills is older and more fragile and less able to bounce back than the charming charismatic genius of the mid-1970s and writing songs about pain and loss after secretly hoping he'd never have to again finds Stills in particularly downcast mood, while not being 'inspired' enough to write it out of his system. The saddest thing about 'Stills Alone' is that he's never sounded more alone and the title refers to more than just the solo performances; the narrator of this album feels like he's never going to be happy again. The good news is that this is - more or less - the last missive from the 'old' Stills and soon he's back to his even older, happier self writing songs about love and family for third wife Kristen and with a new bounce in his step we fans had missed for so long. Released ten years to the day before 9/11, it's amazing how big a difference a decade makes with the later Stills far happier.

Overall, then, 'Stephen Stills Alone' might not be the very best album ev-uh for a whole host of reasons - most of them outside Stills' control, but that doesn't make it an easier ride for fans who had to pay to hear it (especially the modern fans who have to pay a lot to hear it!) Though it's not the worst solo album in Stills' canon ('Man Alive' is weaker still), it is perhaps his flattest, suffering from a similar simple repetitive sound throughout and a lack of the energy and discipline and breadth that the man they once called Captain Manyhands used to be famous for. Given the billing - an acoustic album from a man whose just written one of his best songs in decades in a similar style - it's a bitter disappointment. However, even alone - perhaps especially alone - you can still hear the essence of Stills' talent across his singing calls and this album is still awfully good in a lot of places, far more than most people ever acknowledge, even if it's close to awful in a few, as close perhaps as Stills has ever been.

Usually Stills starts his solo albums with a barn-storming ear-catcher, but in common with the rest of this CD 'Isn't It So?' is understated and mellow, a grower that gets better with every listen rather than an immediate favourite. Stills seems to have spent much of the early 1990s pondering feeling nostalgic, with several songs dating back to the time of his first romance with an un-named older girl who taught the guitarist everything about love - and loss. This is the first time we meet her in song and love is a tough lesson hard learnt, with Stills setting off to earn fame and fortune on his own despite the major bond he feels. 'I wanted to wander' he sighs, 'she knew I would go' but she still loved him enough to let him leave. Only now, decades on, does Stills realise how selfish it must have seemed to her to 'chase rainbows' rather than her, but he credits her with being a 'prophet' who knew he'd only be happy making music for a living. She may even be the person who loved him the most, by letting him go to get what he wanted - she even pays for his food and 'gas for my car' on their last brief meeting. The unspoken feeling across this song is that maybe for all his success Stills should have stayed put and been happy, instead of chasing greater rewards that also came with greater risks and a work ethic that broke up all his relationships up to that point. It's hard not to feel sorry for Stills as he sings about the sheer pain of feeling 'love turned cold' and he's rarely sounded more fragile than here, with a crack in his voice as well as his heart. However he also recognises that this story is one that's pretty much universal and turns to us with a knowing nod as he ends every chorus with the line 'isn't it so?' Few people feel love as deeply as Stills though or at least have the means to turn it into music and 'Isn't It So?' may well be the best song on the album, full of his usual big emotional heart. You do miss the intensity of old though, with this simple arrangement of three guitars and one vocal with overdubbed harmonies not quite enough to bring out the true beauty at the heart of this song.

Everybody had been talkin' to Stills down the years about recording a definitive version of his favourite cover song 'Everybody's Talkin', a sweet ballad by his old coffee-house pre-fame mate Freddy Neil first released in 1966 just as both men were on the brink of fame. The story goes that the songwriter only wrote it at the last minute so he could quit sessions for his debut album early and go home - something he wasn't allowed to do unless he came up with a final song to make the album to a half-hour length! Stills played it on pretty much every solo tour and even coerced Crosby and Nash into singing it on a couple of occasions, although only the slightly rushed version on 'Stills Live' version from 1975 had ever made it onto an official release. By contrast this re-recording is too languid and laidback, less panicked than earlier versions as the narrator realises he's been living in his own little world of sunshine while everyone around him walks in the pouring rain. Sadly, though Stills' affection for the material is obvious, his delivery isn't up to speed and his vocal is quite alarming in places - cracking, croaking, reaching upwards for a flat falsetto his old self would have nailed without blinking; this is one of the harder Stills recordings to listen to out there and there for once there's no 1980s synthesiser to blame it on. Even the guitar playing is perfunctory rather than stunning.

'Just Isn't Like You' is tired and croaky too, but this time it only enhances a song about growing older and further apart. Though Stills appears on the surface to be talking to a long-term partner, in keeping with traditions he may well be singing to himself here. He senses a 'stranger' where 'I once knew you' and a 'dangerous energy' he's not used to feeling and even admits at one stage 'I wouldn't mind - except for the voices' like a wounded schizophrenic. Stills may well be singing about the return of demons he thought were long thought extinguished in his love life, with his drinking and constant touring making another key romantic relationship in his life a struggle and this song is at one with the 'what just happened?' shock of recent songs like 'Haven't We Lost Enough?' and 'Stranger' or - going back a bit - this song ids a sequel of sorts to 'As I Come Of Age'. By contrast 'this' Stills couldn't be nicer - he's considerate and caring for the 'other person' in the song and is calm and thoughtful, a million miles away from the possible temper tantrums and adrenalin rush hinted at taking place moments before. At the same time, though, the end of the song is spiced up by one of this album's few electric guitar passages as a half-snarl begins to build the tension all over again in the background as if Stills' narrator is already gearing up for another round. Then again, maybe Stills is singing for his recent ex Pamela too as he re-acts in horror as his intensity and seriousness is mistaken for 'joking' by someone who clearly doesn't understand the depth of his soul. Sadly the melody on this track is more forgettable than most and the lyric deserved to be explored more fully than three short verses can afford it. This is still another under-rated Stills song though!

'In My Life' is a much-covered Beatles song written by Lennon in a sudden rush of inspiration after hours of getting nowhere with a literal transcription of his childhood years for one of his books (the idea that later became 'Strawberry Fields Forever'). Cheered up by a letter out the blue from old school pal Pete Shotton full of memories Lennon had long forgotten, you can hear the joy in the Beatles' version, tinged with the sadness of the people 'gone' (with fifth Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, John's next close friend, very much on his mind). Stills' version is by contrast almost joyless: this isn't a twenty-five-year-old suddenly reminded of an occasionally happy past but a man who sounds on his death-bed and full of bitter regrets. Stills almost certainly chose this song to cover after his recent trials and tribulations in his marriage, suddenly going from laidback troubadour to howling with pain on the line 'There is no one to compare with you and these memories lose their meaning...' Chances are he had his own past loves like Judy Collins, Rita Coolidge and Veronique Sanson in mind too when he sang this song. Impressively raw and brave, this version is perhaps a bit too raw and brave for most tastes and again Stills' vocal is all over the place. It did however inspire a rather tighter, more expressive version that CSN recorded for their next reunion in 1994 and in which Stills sounds far sharper and more powerful compared to here.

The album's best cover is surely 'The Ballad Of Hollis Brown', a rare example of Bob Dylan writing a protest song that didn't require the listener to take a masters degree in English literature and old folk songs. Across eleven stark verses we hear a crushing tale of American poverty, with the title farmer walking miles for odd jobs while 'your children are so hungry they don't know how to smile'. The mare is poorly with 'bad blood', there are rats in the flour, the baby is crying and the wife is screaming - poor Hollis Brown can't bear it any more so he prays for better times day after day and all he gets for his troubles are pockets that get ever emptier. Unable to bear their suffering anymore, he takes a shotgun off the wall and - after a verse of getting the shakes - shoots his entire family dead (and possibly himself too). However Dylan's cruel humour has all seven re-born in an instant in different families and they're all doomed to go through the suffering all over again (there ain't no way out of here, said the farmer to the thief). This is clearly a song after Stills' own heart recalling the poverty and prejudice of 'Word Game' and 'Black Queen' and it really suits the bluesier side of his personality. He's also in good voice compared to the rest of this album, with less notes to navigate and a very real indignant howl in his voice by the end. Unfortunately though this is one of those Dylan songs that sounds better in cover versions with a full band even if the original (on 'The Times They're A Changin' from 1963) is just as bare. With only Stills' guitar to back eleven very similar sounding verses it had better be good and sadly, by Stills' standards, it's only adequate with his fingers sounding heavy and inept. Still, twenty-eight years after it was written, 'Hollis Brown' still has the power to shock and though I haven't heard all 23 cover versions of this song listed on the Dylan website, it seems safe to say that Stills is certainly one of the more sympathetic interpreters, maintaining the same sense of menace and bitterness of the original.

'Singin' Call' is an interesting choice, a song of Stills' own that dates back twenty years this time. This version sounds more like a demo for the original version on 'Stephen Stills II', lacking the bass, drums and echo-laden chorus. Which is a shame because it was the bass, drums and echo-laden chorus that went a long way to making that track one of Stills' most under-rated 1970s recordings. Not that this version is bad - Stills' guitar picking on a 'real' acoustic guitar for a change and a much more melodic vocal make this one of the best performances on the album (indeed so much does this performance stand out in the middle of this album that I'm not the first person to wonder if this is in fact the unheard 1971 demo masquerading as a 'new' track to make up the numbers and pad this album out?) The song is at least a fitting choice for an album that reflects on lost love and the hard work that seems to keep getting in the way of it. Stills 'wonders if I can do it all' while 'looking for the peace that the ancients bring me', admiring nature 's capacity to simply get on with living without asking too many questions about it. There's a twist ending: refreshed, Stills returns to the real world, so determined to 'tell my brothers what I saw' that he writes a song about it, even though that sort of work was exactly what he promised himself he wouldn't do!

'The Right Girl' is another album highlight, although as per most of this album the songs falls slightly flat in this version and desperately needs a re-recording some day. Having seen yet another romance fall apart, Stills starts wondering about just what it is that he is looking for - although his resulting picture of a feisty intense romantic ends up sounding exactly like the Judys, Ritas, Veroniques and Pamelas of his past all over again. The image Stills has in his head is of a 'honky tonk angel' who can make him feel loved whose tough enough to ride a bike but fragile enough to confess her emotions and fears to him so he can make them go away. Stills is adamant that he wants someone who knows her own mind whose 'tough enough to fight' recalling 'Tomboy', his slightly dodgy track from CSN's last album 'Live It Up' but this time he's less concerned about them making the 'wrong' choices by picking some thick-headed hard-nut man and more worried that he'll be put off his dream choice by seeing someone fighting when all he wants is calmness in his life. Stills sums up by deciding that his dream girl would also be too sensible and mature to stick around and get hurt a second time and absolutely has to leave when 'another man seems nice', perhaps summing up why he feels he's never got any of his relationships (up to this point in time at least) to last the course. More signs that this song is autobiography rather than purist pop comes in the last verse which repeats the refrain of 'Singin' Call' and 'Isn't It So?' both - 'If your head is all messed up and full of big plans you're going to miss her completely and never give her the chance'. In the end this song is much more about Stills being the wrong man for his dream right girl than it ever is about her, but that's what makes it all the more powerful. It's just a shame that this song wasn't performed by the younger Stills rather than the older, struggling one as of all the songs on 'Stills Alone' this is the track that demands the softest, lightest touch and it's rather hammered to death here. There's a nice balalaika solo in the middle though, proof that Stills was still interested in adding colour to his arrangements even on a project where he's clearly pushed for time and ideas.

'The Blind Fiddler Medley' is a moment of pure Stills that's one of the few here that suits the new rawer, lived-in voice. Sounding a little like 'Black Queen' and '4+20' combined, 'Blind Fiddler' is another 'Hollis Brown' tale of poverty and hardship from an old man who can't see and struggles to eke out a living for himself and his three daughters in an uncaring world. Legend has it the song is an American folk song that dates back to the country's earliest oral traditions - it was first written down during the great Folk Song Collection phase of the 19th century after the historians wrote it down from an old lady in return for the price of a cow! The song usually comes with an extra verse Stills doesn't sing here: 'Now my wife and three babes depend on me and they go through all my trials wherever they may be, I hope that they'll be happy while I'm forced to roam, I'm a blind fiddler that's so far from my home'. Instead of that resolution, though, Stills jumps to his 1970 classic 'Do For The Others'. What was once a song of solidarity written for Crosby after the death of his girlfriend Christine Hanton in a car crash has become a second song about poverty and having nothing. 'See, hear, sinking low, doesn't see the love there is to know' is the fitting opening verse, followed by the chorus, as instead of a heartbroken Crosby we follow the blind fiddler into dreaming of friendship and charity as he helplessly waits for others to help him. Hearing the two songs in such close proximity reveals just how close Stills' own writing style is to these old blues standards and just how well the lonely starkness suits his voice (though it's still not even close to being as good as the 'warmer' version from the 'Stephen Stills' record). Finally we land on a faster, angrier version of 'Know You've Got To Run' played on a wild acoustic guitar rather than a steady banjo this time. Stills reaches a howling climax as he again sings about being a lonely outcast chasing a 'great light deep within your eyes'.  The lesson here is that the blind fiddler needs to 'love himself' before others can do the same and needs to escape the 'lonely hole' without his friends before anyone can give him the love he needs. After sounding worryingly like a self-help manual, Stills flips the song back round again with a repeat of 'Blind Fiddler's open verse and rounding off with a short reprise from 'Do For The Others' again. Given the context in this album, it's hard not to see it as Stills commenting on the vicious cycle of recent years, making the point all the more profound by using two earlier songs that emphasis the same points made elsewhere on this album. No sooner does Stills learn the lessons then he forgets it all again with the next love of his life, turning into a self-destructive musician who isolates himself when things get tough and wonders why he ends up alone again time after time. Stills clearly identifies with the bruised and bloodied musician narrator stranded 'far from home' (the young Stills travelled endlessly across his childhood so this early favourite would surely have appealed to him) and delivers one of his best performance on the album on this tour de force which at five and a half minutes sounds like easily the most substantial moment on the record, cover songs and repeats as it may be.

'Amazonia' is a rare Stills ecological protest song performed in such basic and primitive terms that this too surely must be an older demo from the 1970s? Stills sounds younger and more powerful again, while the guitar riff is so close to 'Fair Game' from 1977's 'CSN' ('the one with the boat!') that it seems unlikely Stills would have written a second song so close to the first without assuming that the first would never be released. Certainly 'Amazonia' isn't in the first league of Stills songs: it's a little too 'charity single' in its depiction of a rainforest disappearing 'by an acre in the time it takes to sing this song'. However Stills makes some valid points in his idea that the people cutting down the forests for low pay aren't the criminals - if you're faced with the choice between starvation and unemployment and worrying about the impact of a tree on the planet's population then that isn't really a choice at all. Instead he sighs 'There's always someone getting hurt - sometimes you just have to do what's best', while still condemning the deforestation by greedy companies. Stills turns in some fun acoustic playing here (again, much sharper than on most of the album), but the unchanging drum track he sings along to (again, another sign that this is a demo) is quite irritating by the end of the song. Stills would probably be tickled to know that 'Amazonia' and its parent album 'Stills Alone' is currently the only Stills album not readily available from 'Amazon' (well, not as a vinyl record or CD anyway). He's probably less ticked that 'Amazonia' remains, more than ever in this day and age, a poignant and only too painfully truthful song.

We fans tend to think that nobody really got to hear 'Stills Alone' and that the album disappeared without trace. However it inspired at least one future star in Ray La Montagne who caught this recording of 'Treetop Flyer' on the radio and thought it a song of such genius that it inspired him to write the whole of his first album and beyond. It's certainly one of Stills' brighter ideas, the tale of Vietnam helicopter pilots who use their new skills for ill-gotten gains once they get back home. Stills is clearly on their side - after all they risked their lies for nothing but a phony war and have been given no help whatsoever at integrating back into society on their return - so why begrudge them a bit of money on the side? Full of clever couplets delivered with a grin ('I don't do business that don't make me smile, I don't pay taxes 'cause I never file!'), it's an inventive song that's subversive enough to win a wry chuckle and believable enough to work. 'I'm not trying to break the law' Stills sometimes giggled in concert, 'I'm just trying to tell a story' - but this is more than just a 'story' as his audience well know, it's another great tale of us versus them and the rich versus the poor. Unfortunately this version of a song that many fans had had on their wishlists for a decade and a half isn't really worth waiting for. The 1991 Stills doesn't have the lightness of touch to deliver the right amount of humour and the performance here is heavy-handed and bordering on boring. Far more entertaining are the official versions from earlier years that have been released in the years since - an entertaining demo (probably from the mid-1970s) released as a 'bonus' track on the 'Just Roll Tape' (otherwise recorded 1968, released 2007) and even better performance during Stills' solo spot on the 1982 gig at the La Forum (released on DVD as 'Daylight Again' (released 2004).

Overall, then, there are many bright ideas in 'Stephen Stills Alone' and a few of them even end up becoming excellent songs and great performances. Yet given the brilliance we used to have every time Stills picked up his acoustic guitar (the highlight of many a live set down the years) and the promise shown by the better half of Stills' contributions to CSN's 'Live It Up' album fans expected a lot more from this record. You get the sense that this was a record Stills made as quickly and cheaply as possible to stay afloat after a costly divorce rather than because he was burning with the urge to make music - and for a songwriter like Stills, who thrives on the need to communicate his life-story with his audience, this album never had a hope of working. In truth it's an idea he should have done years before, for the kudos - not in middle age for the money and with a fading voice and guitar skills. Hear this without knowing the great work that came before it however and you'd still take some flashes of genius from it. The highlights of this album however ('isn't It So' The Right Girl' and 'The Blind Fiddler Medley') most definitely belong in every Stills collection and 'Stills Alone' remains a most under-rated album in the CSN collection, if only because so few of us have ever heard it. Don't keep 'Stills Alone' so lonely - demand a CD re-issue along with me (hopefully with a few other acoustic odds and ends to bulk the running time up) and re-acquaint the fanbase with, if not exactly a lost classic, than a better work than it ever gets credit for. 

A Now Complete List Of CSN/Y and Solo Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'Crosby, Stills and Nash' (1969)

'Deja Vu' (CSNY) (1970)

‘Stephen Stills’ (1970)

'If Only I Could Remember My Name' (Crosby) (1971)

'Songs For Beginners' (Nash) (1971)

'Stephen Stills II' (1971)
‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ (1972)

'Stephen Stills-Manassas'  (1972)

'Wild Tales' (Nash) (1973)
'Down The Road' (Stephen Stills/Manassas) (1973)

'Stills' (1975)

'Wind On The Water' (Crosby-Nash) (1975)
'Illegal Stills' (Stills) (1976)
'Whistling Down The Wire' (Crosby-Nash) (1976)

'Long May You Run' (Stills-Young) (1976)

'CSN' (1977)
'Thoroughfare Gap' (Stills) (1978)
'Earth and Sky' (Nash) (1980)

'Daylight Again' (CSN) (1982)
'Right By You' (Stills) (1984)
'Innocent Eyes' (Nash) (1986)
'American Dream' (CSNY) (1988)

'Oh Yes I Can!' (Crosby) (1989)

'Live It Up!' (CSN)  (1989)

'Stephen Stills Alone' (1991)

'CPR' (Crosby Band) (1998)

‘So Like Gravity (CPR, 2001)

‘Songs For Survivors’ (2002)

'Deja Vu Live' (CD) (2008)

'Deja Vu Live' (DVD) (2008)

'Reflections' (Graham Nash Box Set) (2009)

'Demos' (CSN) (2009)

'Manassas: Pieces' (2010)

‘Carry On’ (Stephen Stills Box Set) (2013)

'Croz' (Crosby) (2014)
'CSNY 74' (Recorded 1974 Released 2014)

'This Path Tonight' (Nash) (2016)

‘Here If You Listen’ (Crosby)

The Best Unreleased CSNY Recordings
Surviving TV Appearances (1969-2009)
Non-Album Recordings (1962-2009)
Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One (1964-1980)
Live/Compilations/Rarities Albums Part Two (1982-2012)
Essay: The Superest Of Super Groups?
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

Pentangle: Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part One 1962-1972

You can now buy 'Watch The Stars - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Pentangle' in e-book form by clicking here

Bert Jansch "Young Man Blues: Live In Glasgow 1962-1964"

(**, Recorded 1962-1964, Released December 1998)

Something's Coming/Careless Love/Veronica/When Do I Get To Be Called A Man?/Courting Blues/Medley: Angi-Work Song/Tic-Tocative/Alice's Wonderland/Meanest Man In The Town/Joint Control/Bottle It Up And Go/Untitled Instrumental #1/Train Song/Stagolee/Rocking Chair Blues/Me and My Baby Never Used To Have A Fight/Finches/Blues Run The Game/Pretty Polly/Come Back Baby/Untitled Instrumental #2/I Am Lonely, I Am Lost/Freedom/One Day Old/Train On The River/Hallelujah I Love Her So/Strolling Down The Highway/Gallows Tree/Betty and Dupree/Dry Land Blues

"Train's a gathering speed..."

Baby Bert is still jaw-droppingly impressive on the earliest recordings any of Pentangle seem to have made, finally given a release some thirty-five years later. Even as early as this the people who saw Bert in clubs knew he was someone special and a fan with a tape recorder was determined to capture this new talent in sound, recording Bert delivering three very different concerts at Glasgow folk clubs across a space of three years. Though Bert is just eighteen on the earliest recordings here, he already sounds like one of the best folk guitarists around, with a style all of his own and while this set is dominated by traditional folk songs six of his earliest songs are some of the greatest things here including three future standouts already intact: 'Strolling Down The Highway' has a swagger later versions won't and 'Veronica' sounds more like rock and than folk with Bert tearing into his guitar strings at a hundred miles an hour and 'I Am Lonely' is already the sweetest song in the set by a mile; only 'Finches' is clearly still a work in progress. The biggest surprise though is an incredibly different blues-funk version of 'Train Song' - though this version sounds more like a train wreck it's clearly the song that will appear on Pentangle's 'Basket Of Light' already, just a bit manically. There are also three songs Bert will never return to again, of which 'One Day Old' is perhaps the most revealing - an extraordinarily out of character song about a crying baby driving daddy Jansch to breaking point as he curses being a father (later songs about family life will all be much sweeter than this 'imaginary' song , which might explain why Bert never became a father! 'Meanest Man In The Town' is on similar lines, this time angry at a girlfriend with Bert singing in a very unusual high pitched sweet tone, while 'Joint Control' is a bluesy instrumental like many from his future first album.

Bert is also a great and quirky interpreter, which is great practice for his Pentangle days: 'Something's Coming' from 'West Side Story' gets turned into a latino instrumental, Big Bill Broonzy's 'When Do I get To Be Called A Man?' gets turned into pure folk, Ray Charles' 'Hallelujah I Love Her So' sounds like a rootsy ballad rather than a triumphant R and B song and the cover of Davy Graham's 'Angie' is already a showstopper. Interestingly all of his performances are aggressive and confident, the single biggest change between the sweet and shy performer of later years, suggesting either that Bert feels far more at home playing to 'his' crowd in the folk clubs than he ever did on Top Of The Pops - or that his new friend with the tape recorder had got him roaring drunk for the recording! Though Bert hasn't yet quite grasped his future skill of understanding and juggling several styles at once (his blues and jazz covers don't yet have the same heart or feeling as the folk), his playing is already as great as in future years and at 74 minutes this is as long and strong a set of pre-fame recordings as you can find, in impressive sound too considering it's scarcity and vintage.

"Bert Jansch"

(Transatlantic, April 1965)

Strolling Down The Highway/Smoky River/Oh How Your Love Is Strong/I Have No Time/Finches/Rambling's Gonna Be The Death Of Me/Veronica/Needle Of Death/Do You Hear Me Now?/Alice's Wonderland/Running From Home/Courting Blues/Casbah/Dreams Of Love/Angie

"Your cause is true - do you hear me now?"

The first official release by any of Pentangle is, typically, as low a budget record as you can imagine: it was made using a portable borrowed cassette player positioned in the kitchen of engineer and pal Bill Leader, while Bert also borrowed the guitar he used for the sessions because his own one was a bit too bashed and bruised. Bert was paid a grand total of £100 including expenses by record label Transatlantic Records in one of the greatest deals of the music business, although Bert was loyal enough to the first label to actually say 'yes' to him that he'll stay with the label for most of the next decade.  In common with many things Pentangle, though, the more rootsy the music the more epic it sounds, with some truly sublime solo performances that will remain some of Bert's most impressive and best loved recordings up until his death. There's a kind of breezy innocence and hope about the performances which also make this album quite different to the usual melancholy of Pentangle's work, without sacrificing any of the directness or intensity of the music. This also allows Bert to develop his own style away from the other folk artists of the time - Bob Dylan, for instance, would never have made an album quite as 'in tune' as this, in all senses of the word (in another era and with another band many of Bert's songs about brotherly love could have been accompanied by psychedelic effects and feedback). Though the album sold about as badly as you'd expect from a low key, unpublicised record by a complete unknown (around 150,000 copies total), the record really mattered to the people lucky enough to hear it and after its release Bert was already being talked about in folk circles as the 'next new thing': Jimmy Page and Neil Young, for instance, both heard this record when it was new.

Though Bert has rightly been praised for his excellent acoustic picking across this album, what impresses most are the sons. A fifteen track debut album was impressive enough itself in this era, but the fact that fourteen of them were new originals (along with a single cover of good friend Davy Graham's instrumental 'Angie/Anji' - the spelling changes depending on whose covering the song) which is generally regarded as the definitive performance of the song. The extraordinary 'Needle Of Death' has rightly become hailed as the album's classic (an astonishing anti-drug song from someone who so fully empathises with the lure and power of excess), an impressively mature and sympathetic piece by someone still just twenty-one, but the rest of the album contains a large number of songs that deserve to be as widely known: the churning 'Smokey River' hints at the rock and roll strand in Bert's music to come, 'Oh How Your Love Is Strong' is a candidate for the best of the small handful of love songs Bert will write over the coming years, 'Courting Blues' is a clever, thoughtful piece about having second thoughts on tying the knot with someone who perhaps loves him too much and the beautiful 'Running From Home' is one of the all-time unsung greats in the Jansch canon. The most immediately successful song, though, was 'Do You Hear Me Now?', picked out by Donovan for his EP 'Universal Soldier' where many fans rated it despite the awful insincere mangling Donovan gave it. Sadly not everything is quite up to the high standards of the core half of the album, with a few too many 'Angie' style instrumentals and unusually for Bert a sense of repetition without the eclecticism that will become his trademark in years to come. Still, for a debut record made with so little help it's an impressively daring album which has a lot of important things to say already, sung by Bert when his voice was at its purest and sweetest (and it's most Scottish, although Bert already has more of a London twang than his childhood natural Glasgow burr). Tough to my ears Bert sounded better yet with the rest of Pentangle to tease out and embellish his ideas, this debut album proves that he didn't actually need them: he could still create great art with nothing more than a cheap borrowed guitar and a £100 tape machine.

The album starts innocuously enough with the jolly folk of 'Strolling Down The Highway', the one track here which could just about sound like somebody else. Bert is walking down a long road with a guitar on his back, keen to take his time and do things 'his' way and singing about how better life is out doors ('The sun shines all day long, the garlic is too strong') which suggests he's not singing about the city of his birth but some more imagined American utopian setting! He's worried about the suspicion he sees while walking, though, with people assuming he's an FBI spy when he really is just so keen on playing the guitar there's nothing else he'd rather do.

'Smokey River' is the best of the album's original instrumentals, with some impressively complex guitar picking and a fascinating guitar riff that sounds not unlike 'Jack Orion' with Bert apparently de-tuning and then re-turning his guitar across the course of the song.

'Oh How Your Love Is Strong' is an early love song, perhaps written for first wife Lynda who Bert met when she was sixteen although there's was more a relationship of companionship, allowing her as a minor to travel out of Scotland. Certainly Bert's lyrics sound a bit too hopeful for the romance to be 'real' as he imagines a girl tough but loving enough to 'wave a tumble and tearless song' . As so often happens with Bert, his imagination grows out of control after imagining such a happy beginning and he worries about not being 'man' enough to raise a child and pay the bills, fearing the youngster will take on the pair's 'wild' side and sighing 'would be a crime to leave at such a time when you've many claims to make on me?'

'I Have No Time' is another fascinating song. Bert, struggling to make ends meet, writes a rare social protest song about those who 'live like kings' in ignorance even though 'the famine can cross the waters and get to you' and ending with the furious couplet 'A man can die from lack of food, but you don't give a damn - there's no reason why you should'. Alas the melody sounds like a slightly happier 'Needle Of Death' recycled.
'Finches' is perhaps the least interesting song on the album, a slightly atonal instrumental that lacks the melody of the other guitar pieces on this album but does do a pretty god job of mimicking the cry of tiny birds calling for food.

'Veronica' is the biggest sign on the album that Bert has been listening to something other than folk, with a very Beatley pop melody and a sense of the sighing blues in there too. A sad song about feeling lonely, Bert compares the mental impact with the physical 'hollow' feeling in his bones.

The extraordinary 'Needle Of Death' is clearly the most 'adult' song on the album, inspired by the sudden death of Bert's friend Buck Polly. One of Bert's earliest friends in the music world, Buck was rich enough to own a car and drove a small pool of fellow songwriters around it's clubs in between his day job as a gardener. Slightly older than the others, he had a family and his marriage was hitting the rocks when he first met Bert. After a blistering row and an uncomfortable drive Buck dropped Bert off declaring he was going to get 'out of it' and knew a good heroin dealer - against Bert's protests. When Buck didn't turn up for the next lift his friends feared the worst and it turns out he'd died in the night. It was an event that apparently put Bert off drugs for life, even the softer ones, despite the quantity of them around rock stars back then. However Bert's song isn't preachy or full of I-told-you-sos; instead he understands exactly what his friend was going through; He too has felt the gnawing sadness when life goes wrong and when after months and years of difficulties you can't take anymore. He even sings in the first person to make it sound as if he is the drug addict falling into the clutches, recording how his friends are now withdrawn and saddened, wishing to intervene but unsure what to say. Though the drug taker is numbed by the 'grains of the purest snow' spreading through his veins, it's everyone else who suffers. By the end the user is a victim of mankind's nature, the need to 'free your mind and release your soul' whatever cost that comes with. A famous song for a reason, delivered with just the right mixture of detachment and sadness in Bert's muted voice.

'Do You Hear Me Now?' has rather slipped from its status as the song everyone once knew, perhaps because it's thes song here most like everyone else's in the folk world in 1966. Bert even sings in a Bob Dylan accent on this rambuctious tale of a 'world divided' where nobody cares about each other, each lengthy verse of spewing venom ending with the phrase 'do you hear me now?' Bert laments the idea that the bomb 'might drop in summertime' when the natural world is at its prettiest and wonders why he should be more concerned about that than the loss of life. It's an unusual piece for Bert, who won't sound this emotional or excited again for the rest of the book.

'Rambling's Gonna Be The Death Of Me' is the rueful title of an 'Angie' style instrumental that has a pretty tune and is well played but does in fact have a tendency to ramble.

'Alice's Wonderland' is another slightly rushed sounding instrumental that lacks the sophistication of most of the album but does show off what a fine guitarist Bert was.

'Running From Home' is perhaps the loveliest song on the album that only true Bert fans really know. Clearly inspired by Bert's move to London, it's a song of excitement and fright mingled together, excited at new discoveries but scared by the new intensity and loneliness of life in a new place. Bert thinks he's caught a glimpse of an old love in the crowds but finds out he's hallucinating, so desperate is he to see a friendly face. He's still hoping to 'catch dreams in the clouds', though, and that belief is enough to keep him from running back home again.

'Courting Blues' sounds like an old fashioned sort of courtshop, more like an inter-war blues song, with it's pompous exaggerated guitar rolls and repetitive square shape. However the words are very 60s, Bert encouraging his loved one to elope with him because 'your father will not know'. However it's just a means of forcing her to marry him as it turns out, with a clever switch where the hook line 'do not be afraid to lie...beside me' becomes the more deceitful 'do not be afraid to lie'. Bert sounds very uncomfortable on this song, as well he might.

'Casbah' is a busy instrumental with some of the fastest finger flying of Bert's career, although it never quite settles down into the lovely tune that's at the album's core.

'Dreams Of Love' again repeats the tune that's been heard a few times already on this album - especially 'Running From Home' - with an extra rock kick in the song. These don't sound like dreams, though, but nightmares with Bert again fearing that love won't live up to what he expects from it and the song is full of dark imagery from the fish crying at the young men committing suicide by leaping into the river's depths to blacken out their lives to the visions of what his absent wife is up to 'twisting my mind into knots of lace'.

The album ends with 'Angie', the piece Bert learnt from Davy Graham and which Paul Simon will later learn from this LP in time for second Simon and Garfunkel album 'Sounds Of Silence'. A fun instrumental with a catchy hook, it's a really tricky piece to pull off and a real showcase for acoustic guitarists, but Bert doesn't sound as if he's even broken sweat during his impressive performance.

Overall then, one hell of a debut which tries it's hand at everything from light pop songs and trippy instrumentals to dark songs about betrayal and death. This twenty-one-year old sounds like one to watch, especially when he meets a whole new group of folkie friends after releasing this album...

Bert Jansch "It Don't Bother Me"

(Transatlantic, December 1965)

Oh My Babe/Ring-A-Ding Bird/Tinker's Blues/Anti-Apartheid/The Wheel/A Man I'd Rather Be/My Lover/It Don't Bother Me/Harvest Your Thoughts Of Love/Lucky Thirteen/As The Days Grow Longer Now/So Long (Been On The Road So Long)/Want My Daddy Now/900 Miles

"You are dancing with my dreams"

Despite the surly title and the classic cover shot of Bert peering back and glowering at the camera, apparently in the living room of the flat he was sharing with John at this time (that's fellow folksinger Beverley Martin sitting on his floor - did he only have the one chair?!), 'It Don't Bother Me' is a prettier album than the debut with a few sillier songs amongst the philosophy and a much more contemporary 'Beatlesy' sound. As a result it's often dismissed as being inferior to the first album and certainly there's nothing as striking or heartfelt here as either 'Blackwaterside' or 'Needle Of Death'. Like many a second album, you can tell that Bert has been planning his first album for years - the way it sounds, what it says, where all the tracks go and the overall feel - whereas this follow up from just six months later feels exactly like a follow up made six months later. It is, though, very under-rated and probably more consistent than its predecessor with a number of 'firsts' - the first time Bert played the banjo and the first time Bert played with another musician on record. Inevitably, his partner is flatmate John Renbourn and 'Lucky Thirteen' is one of the highlights of the disc as the pair take it in turns to show off and support the other - very much what they'll be doing throughout their careers.

The songs are still the strongest part though and in between the novelty songs about ring-a-ding birds and silly blues songs are two of Bert's deepest and most revealing songs. 'Anti Apartheid' is one of Bert's angriest and most damning tracks where he turns on all the prejudices 'whispered in my ear' which drown out the cries for freedom and tolerance as Bert pleads 'I can't bear to think of any cast of people thrown aside'. 'Want My Daddy Now' is even more extraordinary, a blues song that tries hard to be a comedy but is really just a howl of pain over the father who walked out when Bert was small. Neither song has ever appeared on a future Bert best of (and goodness know there'll be a lot of those) but both are amongst his greatest works and make this record worth buying for those alone - though that said even the throwaway songs on this album are fun and probably easier on the ears than the repetitive guitar instrumentals. In short, it really does bother me that 'It Don't Bother Me' doesn't get the respect it deserves as another major entry into the Bert Jansch canon and an incredible album for a writer still only 22 (but going on 72 judging by the sound and themes of most of this album).

'Oh My Babe' sports a great tune which makes you wonder if Bert has been listening to Beatles album 'A Hard Day's Night' - the two share a similar breathless energy just about concealing a sense of depression and despondency. The lyrics though leave a lot to be desired and are amongst Bert's simplest and silliest, barely getting beyond the title.

'Ring-A-Ding-Bird' is even sillier, an early sign of Bird's childhood interest in birdwatching as he tries to work out what bird it is he hears who makes such a distinctive song and after deciding to follow it meets a crying girl he tries to comfort (there'll be a whole album of this stuff on 1979's 'Avocet'). The clever fast-flowing guitar lick and a pretty melody makes this song better than the lyrics suggest though.

'Tinker's Blues' is a down-home guitar instrumental like many on the first LP, but rather better: Bert has found a really juicy sound from his guitar and plays in a softer, muted style that's very pretty and conjures up well the image of a man in poverty bustling away trying to make ends meet.

As seen, 'Anti Apartheid' is stunning and very unusual for the generally anti-political Jansch, sounding much more like a Dylan song. Bert 'fails to see' why so many artists go along with racism ('they paint a crooked mile'), why 'of colour you must hide' and why singing a song 'of freedom' is always seen as pointless and irresponsible: what better thing can there be for a musician to bring the world than hope? Bert then goes on to compare out technological advances with backward ways of thinking about people and that if humans everywhere had one colour, as so many seem to want, life would become 'boring and regimented - a factory' where each man is the same. Bert wants to celebrate differences, not hide them. Powerful stuff for 1965, in between Martin Luther King's 'I Have A Dream' speech and his assassination. If only Bert had written more protest songs like this - though many reviewers called it 'naive' that's part of it's charm.

'The Wheel' is a fast-paced instrumental Bert loved to play as a finger-warming exercise and another version will appear as an outtake from the first album sessions. The playful riff is a good one and really catches the ear.

Bert sounds as if he's openly aping Bob on 'A Man I'd Rather Be' where he drops his usual Scots burr and tries to sing with an American twang. On this jokey song Bert contemplates being any animal, admiring their freedom and lack of responsibility before moving on to inanimate objects, but realises only human beings can shape their own future. Not as original as some others perhaps, but this is one of Bert's funniest songs and even its creator gets the giggles before the end!

'My Lover' is an interesting piece that's impressively psychedelic for 1965 (if you know The Byrds' 'Mind Gardens' it sounds like that - lots of guitars playing at different speeds and different tunings as Bert emotes and narrates over the top). As far as we know Bert was between partners at the time - is this a song about missing his first wife from years before? Imagination? Or a mysterious figure who crops up in several later songs too?

Title track 'It Don't Bother Me' is one of the best known songs on the album, a rather uncharacteristic angry song from Bert as he tries to pretend that he isn't hurt by the things his loved ones say to him - but sounds so hurt we know not to believe him. The guitar riff sounds like a fast-paced 'Blues Run The Game'.

'Harvest Your Thoughts Of Love' is perhaps the least successful song on the album, despite being another favourite of Bert best-ofs. It's not bad, just bland, with a slightly over-written lyric that tries too hard to be poetic and a melody that sounds like lots of earlier Jansch songs stuck in a blender.

'Lucky Thirteen' is the long awaited debut of Bert and John and they cook up a noisy storm in a jazzy song that features both men playing in their own distinctive styles and taking it in turns to 'show off!' That's John in the left speaker and Bert in the right, though Renbourn isn't actually credited on the sleeve. This led to a famous review of the time that spoke in awe of this track: 'You could almost imagine Bert growing two pairs of hands to play this!'

'As The Days Grow Longer Now' is the Bert equivalent of Paul Simon (a pal)'s 'The Leaves That Are Green'. Despite being ridiculously young (both men were '22' at the time of writing theirs) they already feel time passing too quick and want to make the most of life before they grow old. Though both songs are good and heartfelt, Paul's is the most powerful and memorable.

'So Long' isn't so much a song as Bert de-turning his guitar before randomly singing in his best blues voice. He sounds like he's been on the road for one date too many on his last tour and has forgotten how to function normally in society - his voice coming in at a different 'speed' to the guitar.

The howled 'Want My Daddy Now' may only be 98 seconds long and may change the details (the narrator's dad is a soldier lost in the war) but the grief and sense of loss is all too real. Bert rarely spoke about anything anyway but certainly never about his childhood - sometimes, though, a song says more than words ever can and though it's partly intended as a comedy this is too powerful to laugh at.

The album ends with the only traditional folk song, '900 Miles', which features the banjo for the first time. It's a good choice, reflecting the album's half theme of the weary life of the musician as Bert finds himself a long long way from home and lost in more senses than just the geographic. The original is thought to have been sung by the railway workers who laid the rails for the first American routes, but works just as well for folk guitarists!

Overall, then, 'It Don't Bother Me' is an impressive statement for someone so young and still not exactly given state of the art equipment (this album was also recorded in Bill Leader's house, without any overdubs!) It's not the first album, but then many sequel aren't - Bert is already keen to move on and demonstrate other aspects of his 'sound', which show off even more of the future 'Pentangle' style hybrids between folk, blues, jazz and pop. Another clear classic.

Dorris Henderson and John Renbourn "There You Go"

(Transatlantic, '1965')

Sally Free and Easy/Single Girl/Ribbon Bow/Cotton Eye Joe/Mr Tambourine Man/Mist On The Mountain/The Lag's Song/American Jail Song/The Water Is Wide/Something Is Lonesome/Song/Winter Is Gone/Strange Lullaby/You're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond/One Morning In May/A Banjo Tune/Going To Memphis

"Give me a boat that can carry two and both shall row"

Much like Pentangle, folk singer Dorris Henderson should have been bigger than she was. An American singer born to a mixed race family back when that was something unusual and striking, Dorris possessed a powerful set of lungs and was pretty uniquely placed to do the one thing that Pentangle couldn't: mix and match from the white and black songbooks. The one thing she didn't have, though, was a sympathetic accompanist  - cue John Renbourn, who first came across her in the same folk clubs he played in where she caught his attention by singing an early song of mutual friend Paul Simon's, 'The Leaves That Are Green' (which appears at the end of the CD as a 'bonus track along with B-side 'Hangman'). The pair were good foils for each other - louder and more energetic than Jacqui, Dorris brought out John's softer, more lyrical side as instead of matching her he provides a comfortable nest for her vocals to fall back on, rather than amplifying Jacqui to make her sound big.. Though most of the songs are traditional folk tunes, it's fun to hear John tackling the rare style of gospel on a few of the songs and it's a shame Pentangle didn't do more in this vein if 'American Jail Song' and 'The Water Is Wide' are anything to go by. John also contributes a handful of originals - the pair duet on the simple but dignified 'The Mist On The Mountain' and sound rather good together, 'Something Lonesome' is a clever folk-blues more like Bert's usual work well suited to Dorris' vocals, 'Falling Star' is a sensitive song clearly inspired by 'Needle Of Death' full of worries about adult responsibilities and 'Strange Lullaby' is an eerie song full of ill omens waiting to catch the narrator out. The highlights though are the one and only time a member of Pentangle covers a Bob Dylan song  (the, at the time, inevitable choice 'Mr Tambourine Man' which is more like Bob's original than The Byrds' better known cover) and the song 'Sally Free and Easy' which Pentangle will cover themselves in another seven years' time.

Technically the pair recorded two albums together, although only this first one gives John co-billing'; the sequel 'Watch The Stars' from 1967 is much the same and includes a similar mix of folk, gospel and blues covers alongside just the one Renbourn original - the rather ponderous spoken-word-with-guitar piece 'Poems Of Solitude', which is one of the most dated and embarrassing moments in the Pentangle discography (John must be glad not to have got the co-billing for this one!) There are many highlights though including a very early cover of an Arthur Lee/Love song to match what may well be the world's earliest Paul Simon cover on the first album ('Message To Pretty') and no less than three songs Pentangle will all go on to cover: a far more gospelly 'No More My Lord', a sweet 'Watch The Stars' which feature John and Dorris singing together and sounding rather good and Ann Briggs' 'The Time Has Come', all of which are key stepping stones to the Pentangle sound. Dorris even knew Danny Thompson, who'd worked with her on a Tv show and guest appears on one of the album tracks Dorris' vocals are an acquired taste which seem to split the Pentangle community right down the middle, but while she couldn't be more different to Jacqui's pure folk, her soulful tones always serve the material well and go nicely together with John's more reserved character. She ended up joining the folk band 'Eclection' after this and actually beat Pentangle to a spot on the isle of Wight Festival by a year. Sadly, though, the music dried up and Dorris retired from active music making to bring up a family, though she continued to do jingle and advertising work up until her far too premature death from cancer in 2005. Both of these albums (Dorris only ever made a third, 2003's 'Here I Go Again', which again features John on one song, the philosophical 'Heart Over Mind') are overlooked items in the Pentangle discography, not the brightest stars in the Pentangle sky perhaps but important and revealing stars all the same.

"John Renbourn"

(Transatlantic, Recorded 1965, Released 'Early' 1966)

Judy/Beth's Blues/Song/Down On The Barge/John Henry/Plainsong/Louisiana Blues/Blue Bones/Train Tune/Candy Man/The Wildest Pig In Captivity/National Seven/Motherless Children/Winter Is Gone/Noah and Rabbit

"Man ain't nothing but a man"

The first 'real' Renbourn solo LP came from the same 'folk boom guitarists recorded in their bedrooms' as Jansch's early records but already the pair have subtlety different sounds. Renbourn was as influenced by blues as he was folk and his material is a hybrid between the two. Though this bluesy style will carry on to parts of the Pentangle sound and many of the Renbourn albums to come, it's exceptionally strong here with John's unusual Dylanesque vocals finding their true home on this earthy, rootsy material. Though it won't mean a lot to those of you who haven't read our AAA book on Jefferson Airplane yet, this record is a dead ringer for Jorma Kaukanen's acoustic blues albums with Hot Tuna, with the same 'modern' take on old style songs (it's a real shame the two guitarists never made a record together). John 'looks' more like a folkie than a blues singer though, as seen on the gloriously mid-60s black-and-white cover that features a 'cool' looking Renbourn with guitar waiting outside a club with a look at the camera caught somewhere between suave and anxious (John said later 'this was back in the day when the record company was under the impression that a picture of me might be good for sales' and spoke of holding it in his hand as his proudest moment, 'a big smudgy brown LP with my picture on the front, sporting cornflake-packets-in-shoes, with a five quid guitar that had a lollypop stick holding the neck up and my name in large letter actually spelt right!' even if, at the time, the album brought him the financial return of 'about two cents'.

Recorded in a small studio in London's Soho Square 'as quickly as possible' and was taped as is live, with as few re-recordings or outtakes as possible. Used to thinking on his feet in folk clubs anyway, John is right at home and on good form across the set, the low-key intimacy of the settings bringing out the best in him. Just like Pentangle, the record is a mixture of originals (six) that sound very like the traditional folk songs on this album and two of them ('Blue Bones' and the closing 'Noah and Rabbit') even feature an early 'Bert 'n' John' collaboration recorded at the same time Renbourn was helping out on Jansch's 'Jack Orion'. Many of the songs will become standards in his catalogue and tracks the guitarist will return to often - the Davey Graham style guitar workout 'Judy', the Muddy Waters cover 'Louisiana Blues' (surely the 'missing link' between folk and blues where the two 'branched' in their evolution!) and traditional folk song 'John Henry'. Most of the record sounds like every other folk wannabe with a healthy blues record collection, but there are already signs of the eclecticism to come, such as the highly original 'Song', an adaptation of a John Donne poem with Big Bill Broonzy overtones, quite unlike anything else around at the time. Despite the speed of the recording session there were time for outtakes, with three additional songs added to the CD re-issue of this album in the 2015. Overall, this is a great debut with signs of a real talent in the making, even if the album as a whole has clearly spent less time in the oven that later Renbourn LPs.

'Judy' is a sturdy guitar picking piece often selected to start Renbourn compilations down the years because it sums up so much of his signature 'sound' - fast flying chords that are impressive at the start but really make the jaw drop as the song gets going and everything keeps getting faster.

'Beth's Blues', like so many Pentangle songs to come, goes so far back in the mists of time that no one can remember who wrote it. Unlike many Pentangle songs, it's firmly from the blues side of the stage with a lyric that in other cases would be happy-go-lucky ('Oh my woman so sweet!') sounding sad and deflated here as the narrator buy his faithful girl the gifts she deserves.

John Donne's poem 'Song' was clearly crying out for a proper musician to interpret it, from the title on down though as far as I know Renbourn was the first. You can see why this fifteenth century poem would have caught the guitarist's eye: a hopeful song about how humanity can catch the stars, with a warning about the 'mandrake root' of evil ready to carry mankind down to hell, it 'fits' with many of his own later songs. The guitar part is simple and direct, the link back to the 'real' world across the poem's warnings of the strange and peculiar things in life bigger than man's own understanding. Renbourn will perform this piece as part of a solo spot at the Royal Albert Hall in 1968, collected as one of the bonus tracks on 'Sweet Child'.

'Down On The Barge' is an original guitar instrumental that's bordering on rock with its fast pace and unusual fast-flowing chord structure. In another world you could imagine this piece with vocals appearing on Beatles album 'A Hard Day's Night' for instance, with the same inherent 'joy'.

'John Henry' and his hammer are a key part of American folklore and sounds a little strange sung with a London accent to be honest. Given the task of blasting rock to make room for a railroad tunnel, in the song Henry becomes the manifestation of humanity's attempts to conquer nature; his speed is so famous he even takes part in a 'race' against a newfangled steam-powered hammer and wins, until the effort causes him to collapse while the townsfolk celebrate with him. Renbourn's take on this much covered song is strangely well behaved, although the unusual atonal guitar tunings are ear-catching.

'Plainsong' is another instrumental, played a little slower than some others with shades of Davy Graham's towering 'Anji'. It's not as memorable as some others but Renbourn is already an impressive guitarist.

Muddy Waters' 'Louisiana Blues' is the album's most daring moment, swampy and bluesy and probably as close to the mud of Louisiana as any white guitarist from London could come. The guitar is more authentic than Renbourn's growled vocal though.

'Blue Bones' is a slow-burning collaboration between Bert and John that despite it's historical significance never quite gets going. The track sounds more like those 'boring bits' between Pentangle instrumentals that really fly rather than the 'good bits'.
Both Bert and John wrote several songs about locomotives, with their romantic sense of being taken on a journey, the implications of man-made power and the fact that their shared love of staccato rhythms sounded not unlike a train running down the tracks. 

'Train Tune' is an instrumental that sounds a little like all these points with a little bit of the later 'Train Song' thrown in too, though of all the instrumentals on the album this is the one that most calls out for some words.

'Candy Man' is an old blues standard first recorded by the Rev Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. A short simple piece about a 'salty dog, fattening hog' who brings misery wherever he goes, there's the hint that the 'candy' he's delivering is drugs.

This first album highlight is surely the fast-flowing 'Wildest Pig In Captivity', a Renbourn original instrumental that must have sounded revolutionary back in 1966. John seems to de-tune and re-tune his guitar during the bursts of slashing chords which get more and more outrageous with every turn, nicely summing up the feeling of being 'trapped' and trying to find a way out. Perhaps the pig has just seen David Cameron in the distance? (Squeal!)

'National Seven' is another strong original with a slightly slower and more 'upright' feel than many other period Renbourn songs. In another world this could have been performed by a marching band.

The traditional song 'Motherless Children' is a Blind Willie Johnson song that dates back to the 1920s and is a powerful piece on mourning that has come to be associated with deaths from natural disaster, war or genocide (though Johnson wrote the piece after his mother died in childbirth). The song cleverly mimics horror and desperation with a guitar part that's deeply eccentric and Renbourn plays the complex song just about as well as anyone - certainly up to the more famous Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan covers of the song.

Traditional song 'Winter Is Gone' is best known nowadays from Nick Drake's cover nearly ten years later and like most covers Renbourn's is sad and regretful even though it 'reads' like a celebration with the cold harsh snow being replaced by lush green leaves. Though John's vocal isn't as warm as some others, on this song particularly his ragged vocals really get to the heart of this song.

The album ends with another highlight as Bert and John continue their friendship with the most Pentangle moment on the album 'Noah and Rabbit'. Bert's angry off-beat staccato rhythm is joined by Renbourn's guitar flying all round the song. Though you can't tell the story from this instrumental, this is the old folk tale the cartoon 'The Last Mimzy' was based on, with creatures from the future sent back to 'our' time disguised as toys in order to avert ecological disaster.

Overall, then, 'John Renbourn' is an impressive record that runs from the distant past to far-flung science-fiction played with panache by a guitarist whose clearly chosen his material well. Though it's lower budget than the albums to come this debut has become one of Renbourn's most celebrated records for good reason, with some tasteful performances and less filler than most period folk records. This album has been released twice on CD by the way - the 1998 version is a generous 'two-fer-one' set with John's second album 'Another Monday' on the back and a 2015 version features three bonus tracks: a fiery alternate take of 'The Wildest Pig In Captivity', a finger-picking take on old folk song 'I Can't Keep From Crying' that really should have made the album and a fairly pedestrian take on Jackson C Frank's famous folk standard 'Blues Run The Game'.

Bert Jansch "Jack Orion"

(Transatlantic, September 1966)

The Waggoner's Lad/The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face/Jack Orion/The Gardener/Nottamun Town/Henry Martin/Blackwaterside/Pretty Polly

(The American edition includes '900 Miles' missing from initial copies of 'It Don't Bother Me' and switches the song order around. It's this version that's been replicated for the CD!)

"I bought me a quart to drive gladness away"

Released the same month as Bert and John's 'official' first collaboration, this album too features an awful lot of John alongside the lashings of Bert. The two friends are clearly having fun as they temporarily switch from recording their own material to the traditional folk songs that inspired them both to pick up guitars from opposite ends of the country. Though perhaps not quite as thrilling as the pair's own material, this is another strong set that really points the way towards the Pentangle sound with Bert and John already sharing a special kind of telepathic link that enables them to turn simple folk instrumentals into glorious extended jamming sessions where both push each other on to new heights. Several of these songs will go on to be popular moments of Bert's live sets, with Jansch's solo arrangement of the churning 'Blackwaterside' deservedly one of his most famous pre-Pentangle moments, while many music fans learnt 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' not from the Ewan MacColl original or Roberta Flack but from Bert's inventive re-arrangement here. Pentangle fans will also recognise the ten minute opus title track, which will become even more daring when re-recorded by the band across twenty epic minutes on their fourth album 'Cruel Sister'. Not quite everything works - this is as ugly a 'Pretty Polly' as you'll find while I personally never shared most fans' wonder at the shouty 'Nottamun Town', which never struck me as a very Jansch-like track. However the vast majority of recordings here are first class and represent another valuable piece of the Pentangle jigsaw falling into place, with both Bert and John on top form.

'The Waggoner's Lad' is a folk cover that's particularly special for showing off the first real time Bert and John played together. That's Bert's speedy banjo playing that start the song before John's slightly more laidback acoustic guitar comes in to dance around his companion. Though the song might have been better still with a vocal attached, for fans of guitarist skill this song is hard to beat, with the pair already remarkably in tune with each other, anticipating how to 'reply' to each other while keeping the song's insistent urgent riffing up.

'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' may not be quite as idyllic or romantic as many other versions around (Johnny Cash's devastatingly slow cover is still the best to my ears),  but Bert can play a mean guitar and the melody of the original is strong enough to survive the treatment.

'Jack Orion' sounds a little posher and slower than he will on the epic Pentangle arrangement from four years later, though it's still an impressive two-hander between Bert and John who keep the momentum up to the end. One of the earliest folk songs any of Pentangle recorded, it's listed with the low number of #67' in the 'Childe Ballad' collection that aimed to write down folk songs passed down by word of mouth. It concerns Glasgerion, a prince who tries to elope with another princess from another kingdom. However  his servant Jack wants the princess for herself so, as he doesn't know what the prince looks likes, he steals into her bedroom and sleeps with her instead. Cue 'Game Of Thrones' style havoc and revenge, with Glasgerion going mad in this original version (some interpretations have him blood-thirstily killing his servant; Pentangle tend to follow the line of beauty rather than violence when given the choice).

Two minute folk instrumental 'The Gardener' sounds like a 90 second introduction to something else, similar in feel to 'The Waggoner's Lad' while Bert dispenses with the original's lyrics (again first recorded by Ewan MacColl) about a Lady Chatterly's Lover style affair between a rich lady and a gardener in favour of some tuneless 'la la'ing.

'Nottamun Town' is another very early song that dates back to the Middle Ages and features Bert as his most intense as he goes all Liam Gallagher on this aggressive piece. In this song Bert's narrator is a traveller heading to a new town and after directions, but none of the zombie-like inhabitants even look at him. Though no one is quite sure what the song is all about, it seems likely the song is a Civil War track where natives are suspicious of strangers who could be spies finding out their allegiance to the king. There is, though, no such place as Nottamun Town in the British Isles, which suggests either that the writers didn't want to upset an actual town or that they also intended it to be a ghostly 'Brigadoon' type world that didn't really exist. Bert beat Fairport Convention to their own more famous recording of the song by a full three years, not the last time Pentangle would get the jump on their closest rivals!

'Henry Martin' is one of the few Scottish folk songs Bert ever played and one he may have learnt as a boy in Glasgow. It concerns a sailor who has great family troubles and turns pirate to support his family, trapped in a dual world where he hides his evil deeds from his brethren and his kind ways from his crew. However Bert's interpretation is another instrumental, which is as usual well played but this song lacks the strong melodies of the best of Bert's extended guitar solos.

'Blackwaterside' is easily the album's highlight, an urgent restless version of an Irish folk tale about the complex love life of a maiden who is fooled into having sex with a villain she thinks really fancies her but abandons her, leaving her to sheepishly go home to tell her parents of her shame. At the time of release this would have been the 'rarest' folk song here, with folksinger Anne Briggs having discovered the piece a mere year or so before teaching it to Bert. The pair would become close collaborators across the next few years and Pentangle would even record some of her songs, although sadly they rarely recorded together. Bert's inventive use of eccentric chords add a real modern element to the shock of what must have been quite a daring Medieval piece and which adds a layer of fear and fright to the piece that other cover versions treat as more of a period piece. Briggs, for instance, recording a much simpler version for her 1971 album 'Ann Briggs', while Bert's cover is thought to have been the first recording of this long forgotten gem. Unlike 'Nottamun Town', Blackwaterside' is a real place, in the countryside near Ulster.

The album ends with a rather un-tuneful version of 'Pretty Polly' with Bert and John switching over so he gets the guitar and John the 'weird' sound of a guitar that's been heavily de-tuned. Rather than play with each other, this song has the pair competing with Renbourn there for colour and Jansch for muscle and the effect isn't quite so strong. The Byrds may well have learnt the song from this record, though recording their own version  of this American outlaw ballad for the 'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo' sessions in 1968.

Overall, then, 'Jack Orion' is caught somewhere between prince and servant, with several of Bert (and John's) best recordings, but also many of their worst. Recorded in a hurry, before Jansch had the chance to build up his usual strong collection of songs, the quickness and cheapness of the recording sessions occasionally shows through, with a couple of pieces deserving at least an extra take if not being replaced by a whole other song. However the best of it, such as 'Blackwaterside' and 'The Waggoner's Lad', makes the setting and budget irrelevent: you could hire the best guitarists to play for a year with a million pounds to spend (in 1966 currency too) and I doubt they'd ever capture the spirit and brilliance of this pair of performers. A useful means of attempting the impossible on a smaller scale than the Pentangle records to come, it's another valuable stepping stone in Bert's understanding of how to take folk songs to the next level and another must-have for curious Pentangle fans.

Bert Jansch and John Renbourn "Bert and John"

(Transatlantic, September 1966)

East Wind/Piano Tune/Goodbye Pork Pie Hat/Soho/Tic-Tocative/Orlando/Red's Favourite/No Exit/Along The Way/The Time Has Come/Stepping Stones/After The Dance

The American edition included two additional tracks 'My Lover' and 'It Don't Bother Me'

"Step inside where men before have drunk to fill to senseless till the dreams fade and die"

So, after five albums between them featuring lots of cross-pollination between the pair of flatmates, friends and folk rivals, Bert and John finally bow to the inevitable and make their next album as 'Bert and John'. At the time it wasn't meant to be a career move, just a couple of friends doing songs together they quite wanted to do and couldn't do apart, and both guitarists will go their own separate ways again in the two years before the Pentangle star starts twinkling in the sky. In the year's since this fairly rare album's release its reputation has grown to the stage where it can solve world hunger and annihilate the Spice Girls in one fell swoop, none of which it quite deserves - in fact this low key and humble record (made in the pair's own kitchen!) of mainly instrumentals isn't quite as daring or original as anything either man was doing apart in his solo career. However, even before Pentangle there was a buzz around this album, over whether two first-class guitarists with such different styles could possibly find common ground and be ego-less enough to let the other shine on passages best suited to them. They could and they did - 'Bert and John' might not be the best album in the Pentangle canon, but it's arguably the best 'guitar' album with both men on top form and you can just hear the respect and admiration as both spur each other on to give their best. Not since Lennon and McCartney had two such different yet equal talents pooled their resources to make an album together - it's a surprise, actually, that this record didn't kick-start the pair's fame then and there after being on the fringes of success for so long.  The informal setting is even summed up in the delightful sleeve where Bert and John are playing each other at backgammon in return for cigarettes! (The look of pure joy on an impossibly young looking Bert's face suggests he's winning!)

The Davy Graham influence, already strong in both men apart, is very loud here with several - shall we say - competitively fast instrumentals that demand total and utter telepathy. The jazz influence is quite pronounced too, the pair even covering a future Pentangle live favourite in Charlie Mingus' 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat', alongside the pure folk of 'The Time Has Come' sung here by a very Scottish Bert in a manner quite different to Jacqui's future purist folk version. You can already hear little cues towards the future Pentangle sound and this album's slight bending of the genres at the corners must have been highly daring for the times, if not quite as explosive as what Pentangle will do with a bigger budget come 1968. There are, however, frustratingly few actual 'songs' on this album compared to improvised instrumentals, which become repetitive after a bit. Well to some extent they do anyway, because at 28 minutes this album is also ridiculously brief, the second shortest in the Pentangle canon in fact, and many of the tracks seem over before they've really begun. Even so, this is the best two-way largely-instrumental folk-blues-jazz-pop guitar album of the 1960s and if that's only because it's the only two-way blah blah blah then that's no bearing on this lovely little album - 'Bert and John' should have started a trend for a whole load more sound-a-likes for this album.

As a side note, for reasons best known to themselves, the American branch of Transatlantic decided to release this as a 'Bert Jansch' solo LP with John down simply as a 'guest' - a bit rude given that this is a real 50:50 collaboration between them. They also muddled around with the contents, getting a longer album by adding two of Bert's 'real' solo tracks 'My Lover' and 'It Don't Bother Me' to the others. Bizarrely it was this version of the album which first appeared on CD (curiously titled 'Bert and John by Bert Jansch'), although the original UK edition has since appeared in 2008.As a second side note, the track 'Lucky Thirteen' was also recorded for this album (initially untitled, it got christened after being taped in the thirteenth take) but for unknown reasons ended up on Bert's solo album 'It Don't Bother Me' instead!

'East Wind' is a pretty little scene setter, with Bert getting jazzy and John getting folky, while the pair pass the pretty oriental style riff around like a baton. Like many a song it could - and should - have gone on twice as long.

'Piano Tune' weirdly enough doesn't feature a piano at all and just sounds like one of Pentangle's more atonal jazzy jams with both men overlapping each other on an instrumental that's as close to 'Anji' as the pair can legally get away with!

At nearly four minutes, the cover of 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat' feels epic compared to the rest and is clearly John's baby as he takes lead with Bert improvising some jazzy licks behind him. This cover doesn't work quite as well as the originals - you can feel the pair are following each other rather than playing their socks off and seeing what happens - and it's almost unrecognisable compared to the live re-make on 'Sweet Child', but it's good and nicely ambitious all the same.

Bert's song 'Soho' is the first actual 'song' on the album, a love-hate song to the pair's home in one of the less salubrious spots of London. Though 'streets of crime' full of dark shadows, the night-life 'dazzles' with 'bright colours' and Bert is at his poetic best as he imagines the market traders with their 'wares displayed in the open window of your soul', while the expense makes the red wine 'flow directly from your veins'. However despite one of Bert's greatest lyrics this album highlight is most notable for the fierce guitar duel burning bright over a quick-paced introduction before Bert even sings a note.

Two minute blues jam 'Tic-Tocative' often appears on Pentangle best-ofs, although it's not that special - more like a sampler for the rest of the album's jaw-dropping synchronicity than a great track in and of itself. The song is presumed named for its tight pendulum-paced metre.

'Orlando' is a hundred-second long instrumental that's slower and more thoughtful than most on the album. Though credited to both men, I'm willing to bet it's predominantly a 'John' song as it shares so many similarities with his beloved Baroque period and feels as if it should be played on a harpsichord. Of course, 'Orlando' wasn't even discovered until the Middle Ages!

The ninety second 'Red's Favourite' is less serious than most guitar workouts on the album and may have been named for the slight 'Russian' feel about the main riff. The poppiest thing on the album, the playing is mightily impressive.

Another ninety second piece, 'No Exit', is another compilation regular, perhaps because of all the instrumentals on the record it's the one you could most readily imagine becoming an actual song - one with Jacqui protesting her innocence over some latest romance gone wrong, with Danny and Bert whalloping the son g's irregular rhythms.

'Along The Way' is, by comparison, a slightly forgettable blues workout that suggests that the pair had been having an afternoon of playing Big Bill Broonzy records and fancied having a go themselves. This is the one time on the album their inexperience shows, though, with the song sounding too breezy to be 'proper' blues.

It's no surprise that the other album highlight is an actual 'song' and Bert's take on Ann Briggs' delightful 'The Time Has Come' (re-recorded by Pentangle for 'Sweet Child' with Jacqui on lead) already sounds mighty fine in 'unplugged' form. Whereas Jacqui will sound ice-calm and cool, while the band play manically around her, Bert sounds weary and resigned, taking the song to quiet a different emotional place.

'Stepping Stones' is a clever folk original that sounds like Bert playing the overflowing waterfall and John the dancing child merrily working his own way across. It's another instrumental that could have become the basis for a great song.

The album ends with a final slab of the blues with 'After The Dance', a track that has John in tune and Bert playing around with his beloved unusual tunings. It's an ambitious attempt to try something different that doesn't quite work, although even more than the other songs here it points the way ahead to the mammoth Pentangle band jams.
Overall, then, 'Bert and John' might be short but it still breaks more ground than most folk albums around in 1965. An essential purchase for anyone who wants to hear where the 'roots' of Pentangle came from, it's a major 'stepping stone' towards the sort of thing the band will pull off to great accliam in later years being done for fun and in the safe knowledge that the album probably wouldn't sell too well outside the pair's immediate circles.  A charming, though not faultless record - would that other AAA band's' early recordings were this complete and revealing...

Bert Jansch "Nicola"

(Transatlantic, July 1967)

Go Your Way My Love/Woe Is Love My Dear/Nicola/Come Back Baby/A Little Sweet Sunshine/Love Is Teasing/Rabbit Run/Life Depends On Love/Weeping Willow Blues/Box Of Love/Wish My Baby Was Here/If The World Isn't There

CD Bonus Tracks: In This Game/Dissatisfied Blues

"A little sweet sunshine's what I want from you, to hold my head up high as I'm wont to do, can't you see that I'm in love with you?"

Bert's third and final pre-Pentangle album has a noticeably lighter feel than either of his first two. While you'd hardly put it in the same bracket as Herman's Hermits, The Dave Clark Five or (shock horror) The Spice Girls, 'Nicola' is easily Bert's poppiest album, which is a surprise not just because the allegedly-dour-but-actually-sweet Bert seems like the last member of Pentangle to make a pop album, but because of the timing. Jansch had already won over the folk community with his first two challenging albums and even the more accessible Pentangle won't ever make an album quite this, full of strings and cutesy pie melodies. Bert even sings with something that's at least on the way to sounding pretty. One has to scratch their head a little and ask why: while the first two albums had never sold that well, Bert really wasn't in it for the money and was doing more than ok really for a folk act; Transatlantic were only too pleased to have sold as many copies of his early albums as they had - though their handling of business affairs sometimes left a lot to be desired they were a very supportive company when it came to letting the writers do what they needed to do. 'Nicola', it seems, just turned out that way out of the same sort of musical curiosity that will lead Bert to putting Pentangle together - with perhaps a little inspiration from his new girlfriend - no not named Nicola but Heather, whose made Bert sound unusually happy and dizzily in love. Just look at how many of the song titles mention 'love' - there won't be this many again across the entire length of Bert's career! Though by now I'm used to hearing love do strange things to AAA acts, Bert seems the last person you'd expect to suddenly become a romantic singer - in the context of the times it's the equivalent of Bob Dylan suddenly deciding to do a record of love songs - or sillier yet a Christmas album. Ha ha ha ha - hang on, what, he actually made one of those?!

As a result, 'Nicola' tends to get short shrift from reviewers who think Bert's lost his marbles, sniffing at the idea of a folk talent trying to sound like The Beatles, with the exception of a couple of fan favourites  that are more in the sadder, acoustic style of albums past. Actually, though, 'Nicola' is a lot more interesting than fans give it credit for and is worth hearing by Pentangle fans at least once, if only to go 'gosh - so this is what a happy Bert sounds like, I always wondered!' It's rare too to hear Bert play so much electric guitar and he's already remarkably good considering that he's been more or less a pure acoustic guitar up to this point, while Bert has already mastered the simpler writing style of rock and roll (at least as it's written here). I'd never claim that 'Nicola' is as worthy as the first two albums - but they aren't the sort of records that should ever be compared anyway being so different (it's like asking if 'Please Please Me' is a better album than 'Abbey Road' - everything's shifted by so many degrees there's nothing direct to compare, not that this sort of thing has ever stopped me in the past mind...) It is, though, a sweeter more accessible record that palls only when the strings get a little bit too cloying and when you go too long without a harder-edged gloomier Jansch song in between all the sugar. Bert admitted later that he was a little embarrassed by this record and got a little carried away in making it, but in context it's exactly what he needed to do: break the mould of the first two records entirely and prove what else he could do; second album 'It Don't Bother Me' had after all slightly dipped in quality already (though admittedly from somewhere near perfection) - a third album in the same vein might have seen even more diminished returns. 'Nicola' might be shallow by Jansch standards, but she's no mug either and features several career highlights.

One of these is the charming opening number 'Go Your Way My Love', written by Anne Briggs who was at one stage Bert's room-mate and so similar to him in complexion, hair and demeanour that several of their friends genuinely mistook them for brother and sister. She'll play a major part in the Pentangle story (in fact it seems odd she wasn't asked to join over Jacqui, although her fame would have eclipsed them all back in 1968) and as well as teaching Bert 'Blackwaterside' will inspire the band  to cut their own versions of Ann's tracks: 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' for their debut, 'The Cuckoo' for 'Basket Of Light' and 'Willie O'Winsbury' on 'Solomon's Seal'. An unusual, almost psychedelic guitar riff suits Bert's gruff vocal as he sings atonally of his loneliness and desperation, sadly bidding the love of his life goodbye.

Given that the song is followed by a traditional folk song titled 'Woe Is Love My Dear' you might be wondering if this really is a 'happy' album. However this is a romantic song from the 'I'm Not In Love' school of deception: though the lyrics are sad, the symphonic backing turns love into the most glorious thing in the worlds and even Bert gets swept away in the pure joy of it all and almost - almost, mind - sounds happy.

Guitar instrumental 'Nicola' is a typical Bert guitar instrumental with a moody string part tacked on. It sounds much more like one of Renbourn's pieces and could easily be mistaken for a piece from the Middle Ages (until Bert suddenly hits a bluesy 'Anji' style chord near the end anyway). You can almost hear the Pentangle sound arrive in Bert's imagination as a straight folk song then veers from blues into jazz with a noisy bass and drums part (the first Bert recording ever to feature drumming! It's clearly not Terry but the sleeve doesn't say who). 'Nicola' was a friend of John Renbourn's wife 'Judy', who'd just seen her best pal immortalised on one of his solo albums and was friends enough with Bert to ask him to write her into a song some time!

'Come Back Baby' is the album's bluesy song and rather a good one, a Walter Davis tune about pleading for a second chance as Bert sounds to all intents and purposes as if he comes from the swamps of Louisiana rather than the flats of Glasgow.

'A Little Sweet Sunshine' is one of the biggest experiments on the album, which could easily have passed for a bit of earthy psychedelia with horns. Based arounds a hot electric guitar riff, Bert sounds oddly at home as a preening rock star wishing his girl was at home instead of running over town, but the backing musicians playing along with him are awful and almost ruin the song with their sloppy performance.

'Love Is Teasing' is the album's first horror, with a drunken sounding Bert growling over a guitar riff in the wrong key! Bert is trying to sound cute as he sings about wanting to be young again 'but that will never happen unless oranges hang from an apple tree'. Funnily enough Bert has never sounded more juvenile.

'Rabbit Run' is rather better, with three Berts singing in counterpart over an original folky song that seems to take the side of the escaping rabbit over the hunter. However, while many fans rate this song highly (it appears on a lot of compilations) by Bert's standards there's not a lot going on here and the tune just repeats itself over and over without even a chorus to break up the monotony.

'Love is easy - if you try' sings Bert at the start of 'Life Depends On Love', a song so uncharacteristic I've just had to triple check that he isn't singing some obscure Burt Bacharach track instead. It's rather good, once you've got over the shock, with a lovely riff passed like a tennis ball between the piano and brass, while Bert sounds deeply natural in the part. An unexpected highlight.

'Weeping Willow Blues' is a really jarring shift of gears back to blues. A fingerpicking good traditional song, it's been recorded by several famous blues figures including Bessie Smith and Blind Boy Fuller.

'Box Of Love' is freakishly like Donovan - and believe me that's not a compliment. A list of icky trite lines that sound like hippie nonsense, this is one of Bert's worst songs: 'Come gather raindrops in a box made of crystal made of glass, then hide the wind in a box made of wood'  I'd take a basket of light over a box of love any day.

'Wish My Baby Was Here' is back to Bert the crooner and again he's oddly great given how many million miles outside his comfort zone he is - it's everyone else in the band who deserved to be taken out and shot for their sloppy playing. The main riff is sweet the first time you hear it, slightly less pleasant by the second time and makes you feel like you're about to go mad by the end of the song.

'If The World Isn't There' is more like it - another prototype for Pentangle that bends several styles at once. You could imagine this song being done by blues, folk, jazz and pop singers with a little bit of all four on this clever bit of cod philosophy about half the world being in love and the other half not at any one time.

Overall, then, there are less individual moments on 'Nicola' to praise than on 'Bert Jansch' and 'It Don't Bother Me', with most of them heard right at the start, but that's not to say this is necessarily an inferior album. Bert's taken a gamble - sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't - but actually this poppier pretty album was as radical a departure for him to make as all those poppier pretty hippy bands suddenly getting radical and deep. Jansch doesn't sound as hopelessly adrift as you might expect and it's great to hear him clearly enjoying himself across this album. It's just a shame he doesn't enjoy himself a little more by hiring a better rhythm section and skipping a couple of the solo blues pieces. Three more songs were recorded at the sessions - sadly an early version of Pentangle's future fan favourite 'Train Song' is still sitting in the vaults somewhere but the CD re-issue of 1993 added the other two long lost originals: 'In This Game' is an atmospheric song reflecting on how Bert feels 'bored with my life' that would have fitted on the debut album well, whilst 'Dissatisfied Blues' is a rather generic 'woe is me' blues song.

John Renbourn "Another Monday"

(Transatlantic Records, 'Late' 1967)

 Another Monday/Ladye Nothing's Toye Puffe/I Know My Babe/Waltz/Lost Lover Blues/One For William/Buffalo/Sugar Babe/Debbie Anne/Can't Keep From Crying/Day At The Seaside/Nobody's Fault But Mine

"The best of friends sometimes must part"

John's second fully solo album is, like Bert's, a little more hi-tech than his first, with the front cover now including John sitting on some steps outside a folk club (going up in the world?) John's memories of this record in fact centre more around his pride at Transatlantic buying him his first brand new guitar than the music he made with it, although he found that the recording conditions only improved a little bit - he was now recording in Bill Leader's kitchen not his living room! Transatlantic certainly got their money's worth, with John turning in another impressive string of performances on an arguably even better mixture of songs and instrumentals, several of which will become widely known in the Pentangle days and beyond. Take 'Waltz', which in a year or so's time will be one of the centre-point jamming sessions of the first album, here reduced to the bare bones as a two minute guitar instrumental. Or 'Lady Nothynge's Toye Puffe', a Medieval dance that will become one of John's most legendary solo recordings and a regular on best ofs (there will even be a sequel in a few decades' time!) Or one of the few covers on the album, a bluesy take on Blind Willie Johnson's 'Nobody's Fault But Mine', which will also appear lots of Renbourn compilations to come.

This is then another strong album, although to my ears it's ever so slightly less impressive than the debut or the recent 'Bert and John' LP. It's not that Renbourn doesn't still play great and his material is still strong, but there's slightly less sense of wild adventure here or material that no other folkie would think of touching. The one true clear direction ahead as heard on this album are the delightful guest appearances by future bandmate Jacqui McShee, who enhances 'Lost Lover Blues' and 'Can't Keep From Crying'  no end despite having never made a professional recording before (and sounds a little different here, without the purity of later recordings). Just as with 'Bert and John' you can almost feel the Pentangle pieces sliding into place here as the duo realise just how much better they sound together than apart. That song is the highlight, closely followed by 'One For William', an early example of Renbourn's love for Medieval sounds that points the way to his future sound, with the melancholy of the oboe working well against the rush of his guitar. At a mere 28 minutes, though, this is the shortest album in the Pentangle canon and feels as if it could have done with at least a couple more recordings to round the album out.

Title track 'Another Monday' was written about a visit John took to a market that used to be his local and is meant to reflect the hustle and bustle of crowds yelling and shouting all at once. His playing is as impressive as ever on this fast-paced song but it lacks a really distinctive melody.

The ninety second 'Lady Nothynge's Toye Puffe' was a landmark recording at the time - the first time a folk guitarist had sought to combine the 1460s and the 1960s in sound. It remains perhaps John's greatest instrumental as his flying hands play the part of several instruments all at once. Before you ask, no I don't know why John gave this piece such an oddball title, although it does sound like the sort of name a real piece from the middle ages would use!

'I Know My Babe' is the famous folk song better known as 'I Know My Rider' and it's a good reading, warm and fast flowing as John's guitar creates a 'ripple' effect. A popular song in the rock world (the Grateful Dead and The Byrds both did it too, making it one of the most covered songs amongst AAA bands). Legend has it that the song was written about a black girl wrongfully imprisoned for killing her white boyfriend, although the piece is so old and dates so far back in the mists of time nobody is really sure.

The early version of 'Waltz' is the fastest Renbourn piece yet and the guitarist sounds in a right old hurry. In truth, there's not much that links this piece to the later Pentangle one except the speed and the 'waltz' triple time beat which will have calmed down a lot once the rest of Pentangle gets involved.

The lovely 'Lost Lover Blues' features John and Jacqui trading lines about partying lovers getting back together. Though neither sound much like their future selves, they still sound awfully good together on this Blind Boy Fuller song that's treated more like folk than blues.

'One For William' is another strong album track, with the sad flow of the oboe and the fast runs of Renbourn's guitar making for an exciting combination. Sadly no one seems to remember who 'William' is, although I'd like to think that John wrote this as a eulogy for 'Willie O'Winsbury' an old folk song he was already obsessed with and which he'll record twice - the melodies of the two are fairly close as well.

'Buffalo' is a return to the jazzier instruments of the first album which is just as impressive but somehow slightly more forgettable, with a country and western style that never quite settles down into a memorable melody.

The Wonderfully named Dock Boggs, an African American slave turned farmer, wrote 'Sugar Babe' as a blues song back in the 1920s where it became an American standard - the first of many Stateside songs John will cover on his musical travels. John's unusual voice works well on this song as his fast fingers fly over another of the album's better tracks.
The pretty 'Debbi Anne' just can't keep pace and is one of John's more throwaway guitar instrumentals. Sadly nobody seems to know who this was written for either, although both Bert and John had a habit of using their girlfriend's names in their instrumentals so perhaps it's a long lost love?

'Can't From Crying' may well be the album highlight, a fast paced cover of a traditional song that was probably first a spiritual played on slave plantations and again a regular in the rock and blues worlds. John and Jacqui sounds great together on this distinctly folk cover as they mutual support for each other after some great hardship takes the song in a whole different place to most cover versions.

'Day At The Seaside' is another oddball Renbourn guitar instrumental, one which rambles rather a lot for John. I'm not sure it sounds like a trip to the sea either, unless it's the sort of day where there's a howling gale!

The album closes with the bluesy strut of 'Nobody's Fault But Mine' which has John sounding like an old blues singer, with Jacqui popping up on backing vocals partway through the song. It seems strange that a song about taking all the blame should be a duet, but there you go. Blues always seems to go well with folk and this is no exception, faster than the original and with less of a sigh but still with the same sense of regret and loss.

Overall, then, 'Another Monday' is another step towards Pentangle and as such is automatically a great and important album even if in truth only half of it is actually that great or important. The 'John Renbourn' debut was more adventurous, the 'Bert and John' album more exciting and most of what Pentangle will do stays longer in the memory. However 'Another Monday' has its moments of spirit and sunshine and discovery and is a major part of the Pentangle story, too often overlooked. This album has also been out on CD twice, once in 1998 on the end of the 'John Renbourn' album and again in 2008, sadly without bonus tracks this time.
John Renbourn

"Sire John Alot Of Merrie Englande Musyuk Thyng and Ye Grene Knyghte"

(Transatlantic, '1968')

The Earle Of Salisbury/The Trees They Do Grow High/Lady Goes To Church/Morgana/ Transfusion/Forty-Eight/My Dear Boy/White Fishes/Sweet Potato/Seven-Up

"Sire John Alot has topped the lot, though he daest not sing on this musik thynge"

Baroque and roll! The last record released by one of Pentangle before the band was close enough by Pentangle anyway, containing as it did Medieval folk songs John had already rehearsed and played with Bert and Jacqui and featuring guest appearances by Terry. Sir John The Bold really goes for it this time, with a record that offers no nod to contemporary folk or Dylanesque protest but instead features four genuine traditional pieces from the Middle Ages and six more originals that sound like they may as well have been. Though neither this album not it's even more full-on sequel 'The Lady and The Unicorn' were ever going to have the mass appeal of Pentangle, they remain important landmarks in the Renbourn catalogue and point to just how much of Pentangle's old timey worlde but in a cutting edge style sound came from John. All the songs are instrumentals and many of them just feature Renbourn and his trusty guitar, although the best songs are duets for guitar and flute with Ray Warleigh guesting (the pair should have worked together more often, judging by these recordings as they have a real telepathy with each other). One of these is 'The Trees They Do Grow High', a song that will appear with words less than a year later on Pentangle's second album 'Sweet Child'. Pentangle will also perform 'Forty-Eight' , a song co-written with Terry, in their live performances a few times too (the same studio take appears on the 'Time Has Come' box set the band released in 2007).

This is, however, very much Renbourn's LP and the sort of thing no one else - not even Bert - would have even though of trying. So unfashionable in musical terms it became fashionable in the anything-goes world of early 1968, it's a very important album too that showed a rare respect for heritage and tradition back in the days when it was doing things new and exciting that were making all the noise. Like The Kinks' 'Village Green Preservation Society' released the same year, however, there's a sense of a writer paying back his dues to the music that first inspired him and tacitly agreeing to keep that bond alive by passing the music on to another generation in a  slightly different form. The fact that this uncompromising, peculiar mix of five hundred year old songs and five hundred year old sounding originals also happened to end up a big hit was just a happy bonus. The highlights are many: seven minute epic 'Morgana' goes through more changes of pace, tone and style than most albums, the two minute instrumental 'Transfusion' is Pentangle in miniature with Terry hitting a heavy beat behind John's jazzy improv riffs and 'Sweet Potato' is a fascinating attempt to combine a Medieval song with an obscure contemporary song by Otis Redding's backing band Booker T and the MGs with a new guitar riff 'inspired' by The Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction' thrown in too.  Unlike some Renbourn albums to come the performances are lively and varied, with every track going somewhere different. The only downsides are that Renbourn keeps quiet throughout, with no vocals anywhere on the record and that, at barely half an hour, a Medieval banquet wouldn't even have had time to move on from the starters. Still, from the clever painting (John's head in a visor surrounded by other knights - funnily enough there's five suggesting this might be a pre-Pentangle reference!) to the track selection this is one of Renbourn's more carefully selected albums that has less padding than usual behind the armour too.

Abstract painter Willem De Kooning reportedly loved this album so much he drove his assistants mad by playing it every chance he could (leading to John later modestly claiming to have helped change the Western art movement at the same time as the musical one!) Though I can't paint to save my life, this sounds like a good album to create art too: it has so many of the 'building blocks' of music in place with just enough invention and improvisation to get the creative juices flowing, without so much going on that it distracts you. It's also played with a love for the genre that makes Sting's 'mock tudor' album of lute music seem as wrong as The Spice Girls doing an album of Madrigals. The CD version, released in 2008, includes three extra tracks: alternate versions of 'Transfusion' 'Forty-Eight' and 'The Earl Of Salisbury' of which none are all that different but the first is particularly good. 

Bert Jansch "Birthday Blues"

(Transatlantic, January 1969)

Come Sing Me A Happy Song To Prove We Can All Get Along The Lumpy Bumpy Long and Dusty Road/The Bright New Year/Tree Song/Poison/Miss Heather Rosemary Sewell/I've Got A Woman/A Woman Like You/I Am Lonely/Promised Land/Birthday Blues/Wishing Well/Blues

Released hot on the heels of 'Sweet Child', the first solo-Pentangle-album-while-Pentangle-are-still-a-band award is Bert belatedly celebrating his twenty-sixth birthday. Judging by the album cover, his main birthday present this year seems to be a puppy - though going by Bert's characteristic expression (halfway between a scowl and a look of love) he's not quite sure whether it's a blessing or a curse. The same is true about his 'other' blessing in this year: the muse that inspires his songwriting is especially strong, with this Bert's third major release of four within the space of just sixteen months. For the most part, the muses that call to him are because of all the good things happening in his life - not only has Bert's dreams of a genre-bending band who can play anything he can throw at them coming true, so is his long-held dreams of being in love, with second wife Heather entering into his life and getting name-checked under her maiden name on one of the instrumentals on this album. For a good two-thirds of the album, this is the happier side of Bert coming through, with a delightfully joyous and sometimes downright dotty album building nicely on the happy go lucky vibe of 'Nicola' and a world away from the tougher, tenser Pentangle albums. You only need to take one look at the title of the opening track which parodies the usual Bert Jansch sort of song ('Come Sing Me A Happy Song To Prove We Can All Get Along The Lumpy Bumpy Long and Dusty Road') to know that Bert is in a gloriously humorous mood. However the other third of the album already points at trouble in the garden of paradise: 'Poison' is one of Bert's most terrifying and self-inflicted songs that casts the darkest of shadows across this album, while 'The Bright New Year' is despite the title a sad song about the death of a loved one and  'I Am Lonely' points to how isolated Bert feels even after scoring highly on two of his biggest dreams. The result is an album that keeps tripping you up just when you think you've worked out it's mood: eight songs of warm-hearted sighing 'awww, you shouldn't have!' combined with four tracks of ice-cold glares going 'no really - you shouldn't have'.

Once again, Bert writes everything here rather than going back to old folk songs, the exception being a fascinating collaboration with old friend Ann Briggs on the track 'Wishing Well', which doesn't sound like either writer's 'normal' styles. Pentangle fans will have already heard 'A Woman Like You' on 'Sweet Child' a few months earlier - however because that take only appeared on the 'live' version of that record, this re-make is a valuable addition to Jansch's canon and one of the greatest highlights here. Bert's also joined by Terry once again, hinting at how the song might have sounded as a full-blown Pentangle recording. Danny appears on certain tracks too and the album is produced by Pentangle's regular producer in this period Shel Talmy, which gives 'Birthday Blues' a fuller and more eclectic sound than usual for Bert's solo LPs. Jansch is still very much the star though, with many of the best tracks performed with nothing more than that voice and that guitar. Which is still about the best birthday present anyone could ever wish for. Though there are many great Bert solo LPs, this one is at least a candidate for being the best of all and a recommended starting point for fans who only know the full Pentangle albums.

'Come Sing Me A Happy Song...' (I'm not writing all that out again!) is more than just a clever title, it's a clever song too with Bert in a very jolly mood 'where nothing can go wrong' although he's already wondering 'how long it will be' before the mood collapses again. Danny and Terry make excellent contributions too.

'The Bright New Year' is a poignant song about Bert's mum who'd died in this period and Bert's dreams that one day he'll not only see her again but 'see you happy'. It's a lovely song, but at only 90 seconds is more of a fragment than a major entry to Bert's canon.

'Tree Song' is one of the album highlights, a pretty love song that compares his lover's 
warming smile with 'my foolish heart' as this great wordsmith worries about what to say to her ('I hope this song is pleasing to your ear' he shyly whispers instead). Bailing out, Bert switches to his favourite metaphors and compares himself to oak trees, corn seeds, silken threads and 'a glass of wine'. The lovely backing features flutes and a much better, sparser use of orchestra than anything on 'Nicola'.

Another highlight is 'Poison', a 'Woman Like You' style blues full of ragged, relentless guitar, gorgeous harmonica puffing by guest Duffy Power and a terrific Terry Cox drum part that's manic and Keith Moon-like, battering Bert's ideals as he cowers under all the blows. Bert feels the new 'poison' in the air, 'hanging there, invisible' and ruining his new sense of optimism. It sounds like the outer world that's chilling Bert, as he urged everyone listening to 'be kind to your neighbour' as our creator is 'running out of ideas' to intervene and save humanity from himself - we will soon have nowhere left to turn other than ourselves. Similar in style to but better than most of the tracks from the pre-Pentangle albums, it's a chilling song and one of the best of Bert's career.

The charming 'Miss Heather Rosemary Sewell' suggests again that Bert's courtship of his second wife was a very polite and gentlemanly affair. This song sounds as if ought to be played on lute rather than guitar and is closer in style to John's typical work than Bert's. A live Pentangle version appears on the occasional compilation, starting with 'At Their Best'.

Alas 'I've Got A Woman' is the album's biggest mistake, which like 'Nicola' tries to turn Bert into the big band frontman he plainly isn't. This time Bert is at the head of a jazz band on an ugly and slightly misogynistic song which would have already sounded slightly dated in 1969.
Thankfully the solo (well, Bert Danny and Terry) version of 'A Woman Like You' is thrilling. The 'Sweet Child' version is already very good but this version is great, with Terry especially pushing this song on to new places as Bert finds himself challenged and pushed out of his comfort zone by his new love. He tries to weave a 'magic spell' to make the girl he fancies fall in love with him - but finds too late that she's stolen his heart instead, which shocks his usually 'lonely soul'.

The delightful 'I Am Lonely' is a more complex song than it sounds. The lyrics are Bert's most dejected - he's not just lonely but spiritually lost and aware that he's growing older and feebler with each passing year. However the pretty tune and the lovely backing (again starring flute) suggest that unlike some earlier Jansch songs, salvation is at hand out there somewhere. Another Pentangle live favourite, this crops up on a lot of Pentangle BBC sessions as Bert's favoured 'solo turn' that year.

The noisy 'Promised Land' is a rare bit of Biblical storytelling from Bert as he dreams that he sees Jesus who refuses to 'shake his hand' and seems distant and cold, while an angel drowns out St Peter's calls and invited Bert downwards not upwards. No one can do guilt like Bert and he's clearly shaken on a song where he calls himself 'a drunken fool whose broken every rule' - though most sources don't have Bert's alcoholism down as a problem until the 1980s he's clearly already fearing that's he's fallen too far into the evil clutches of drink.

The 75 second and rather archaic sounding instrumental 'Birthday Blues' is sweet but not really up to the album standard, sounding like the opening to the TV series 'Bagpuss'.

The unusual 'Wishing Well' is a bluesy collaboration with Ann Briggs and her brother David which uses a poetic form more like a haiku, full of clipped phrases without the usual detail that all three writers use. Though the song is ambiguous enough to mean all sorts, it sounds to me like Bert promising to treat the inspiration he draws from life's well with care, planting 'red flowers' as a token of his appreciation and trying to do 'right' by what he's 'gifted'.

The happiest album in Bert's discography - give or take the odd song - then ends on the happiest 'Blues' you've ever heard. The song really benefits from the contributions of Danny and Terry once more while Bert cooks up a great funky guitar part, but it's a slightly overwhelming and rather 'safe' end to such an exploratory album.

Overall, though, 'Birthday Blues' is a treat. It's great for longterm fans who care about him to hear Bert so at peace with himself, without sacrificing the darker or edgier aspects of his writing on the few tracks that don't go to this happy place and which sound all the darker for appearing without warning on this sunniest of LPs. Bert is in great voice too, without any of the gruffness of even the recent Pentangle albums and his guitar playing is as superb as usual. Well worth a listen, even with the odd filler track included too and about as close as Bert got to perfection in his solo career. 

"Christian The Lion" (Soundtrack)

(Released as part of 'The Time Had Come' Box Set, Recorded 1970, Released 2007)

Christian The Lion (Medley)/The Furniture Store

"The journey is beginning, bound for the country and a new place to stay"

The first of two obscure Pentangle film soundtracks, 'Christian The Lion' was a late addition to an obscure Bible re-telling movie that until late in the day was set to include a score by classical composer Ray Beaver. Pentangle were an interesting choice of replacement for what is effectively a nature documentary, a sort of 'Tarka The Otter' involving a lion bought at auction at Harrods and whose life story goes from over-large house pet to being released back into the wild. Like a bull in a china shop, Christian made a right mess of his owner's furniture store and could clearly not stay at home anymore - after pleas in the papers for help Christian's owners were visited by the stars of the film 'Born Free' Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna who helped raise publicity and funds. This documentary film was part of the fundraising effort to get the wittily named Christian back to the wild and has since gone on to become a key movie for wildlife enthusiasts, revealing more about lions and their interaction with humans than any project really had hitherto. The star of the film is clearly Christian, who appears to have more nobility and grace than any of the humans bartering over his existence and whose civilised demeanour helped change the media's depiction of lions as unthinking barbaric creatures. The film remains a key text even today: the 1971 book based on the film (though released first) was re-issued in 2008 and an extract from the film suddenly went viral in 2009, shared by millions of Youtube users around the world. The love shown for the lion and vice versa makes  a mockery of certain misguided hunter-dentists after trophies.

The time had come, then, for Pentangle to release their hard-to-find and largely improvised soundtrack recording on their box set which just happened to be in preparation back then, even though in truth it's a curio rather than a major missing element of their heritage. Like 'Tam Lin' to come, Pentangle's music is rather 'dropped' into the recording a few seconds at a time, so only really exists as fragments rather than as a full song. However the box set's decisions to stick as much music as they could together as a medley works very well indeed, giving the song a certain flair and epic status as the track builds layer by layer. 'Christian The Lion' itself starts off as an instrumental version of something similar to 'Sally Free And Easy' dominated by piano, before ending up in an early instrumental preview of Bert's latest song 'People On The Highway' with some pretty 'la la'ing from Jacqui over the top; from there the song turns half a circle into a more 'Pentangle' song about the lion himself being sold at auction ('Someone will surely take you and make you their own'); then it's into a funky blues instrumental with Danny's double bass and Terry's xylophone chasing each other round a moody riff; next it's a reprise of Jacqui's pop chant telling us that Christian is 'part of a pride in a small family - but the trials are not over, only beginning in an attempt for him to find his liberty'; next is Bert with a cheery la-lahed instrumental piece that's very Jansch without actually sounding directly like any of his other songs; next a scary instrumental featuring the whole band that matches the lion's roar with some fierce drumming and an insistent bass riff; finally Jacquie bids goodbye with a celebrator third verse of the main song theme, celebrating Christian's 'new freedom in his native land'. For a piece cobbled together at the last minute it's rather good: as a six minute medley on a box set it's harder going, switching gears just as the piece is getting interesting: still that's film scores for you. Just as throwaway is a second piece titled 'Furniture Store' after the early scene in which it appears as Christian is taken 'home'. A minute long sitar burst from Bert playing something not unlike his part on 'Once I Had A Sweetheart', this too switches gears into a hummed moody instrumental where Bert's sitar and Danny's bass meet Jacqui's gorgeous 'oohs' head on for a piece of music that represents travelling and movement. Alas this is also too short to really get going though it works nicely in the film. Two fascinating pieces for collectors then, though you might need to have done quite a bit of 'Pentangling' to reach point where these ten second fragment make you go 'oh wow' rather than simply 'oh no!'

John Renbourn "The Lady And The Unicorn"

(Transatlantic, '1970')

Trotto/Saltarrello/Lamento De Tristan/La Rotta/Veri Floris/Triple Ballade/Bransle Gay/Bransl De Bourgogne//Alman/Melancholy Gilliard/Sarabande/The Lady and the Unicorn/My Johnny Was A Shoemaker/Westron Wynde/Scarborough Fair

"The loveliest of all was the unicorn"

The first of two solo albums released while John was still in Pentangle, 'Unicorn' is one of Renbourn's most fulfilling LPs. Like 'John A Lot' but even more so, it's an album that tries hard to come to Medieval songs with the same skill and passion as contemporary rock 'n' folk, with pieces from five hundred years or more made to sound as if they could have been written that same day. Of all the AAA musicians, Renbourn realised perhaps more than anyone that music crossed boundaries of time and location and that modern composers use exactly the same notes the Madrigal, Baroque and Renaissance era composers used with just a few man-made rules to tweak them. Many of these tracks come straight from the Fitzwilliam Book, a famous Medieval guitar book that aimed to teach aspiring players how to play the songs of the day, with more 'obvious' choices than usual here perhaps (though I still defy anyone to know more than half of these tunes played by anybody else!) The rest - the opening four songs - come straight from the snappily titled 'MS29987', one of the earliest surviving copies of sheet music which dates back to around the fifteenth century and was in the Medici family collection for years before making its way to the British library. For a folk music historian like Renbourn, it must have been an exciting document to behold and the fact that he could study it actually in his hometown of London must have been irresistible - it's inevitable he'd try to record as much of it as possible one day.

Renbourn commented later that, rather than try to keep things as note-perfect close to the originals as perhaps other musicians might have done, he preferred to 'use the existing melodic/rhythmic characteristics as a framework for solos', weaving in his own style to emphasis sections of notes he particularly enjoyed and wanted to hear more of like a tapestry of the old and new (as ever, the restoration is done so well you can't see the joins). Talking of tapestries, the album name and front cover are both taken from a French series which was made up of six different pieces of cloth depicting the different senses of sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing. The front cover is taken from the last piece which sets out to combine all five titled 'A Mon Seul Desire' (My one soul desire) surrounded by all the pieces features in the others and in true ambiguous Pentangle style no one is quite sure what it means. Is this a 'sixth sense' heightened by the others? Is it the lady seeking to use all of these senses? Is it the lady ignoring all her senses as she falls madly and passionately in love? (She's holding a necklace, which is clearly a romantic gift). Or is she rejecting love based on her understanding of all her senses? The tapestries were cleaned up in 2014 revealing new details hitherto unseen - which is kind of what Renbourn did musically back in 1970.

Alas until they invent a time machine I can't tell you (and if I do I'll be too busy enjoying myself watching the early Pentangle at the Horseshoe Hotel to get there anyway). What I can tell you is that 'Lady and the Unicorn' is one of the funniest and sunniest of Renbourn LPs. While other solo albums can make these musical history lessons seem like a bit of a drag, Renbourn is eager here to do everything he can to show the world just why he's so passionate about this period. Renbourn's own playing is strong and vibrant, breathing new life into old pieces without any notice of the dust around them. His friends too are good additions to the material, complementing rather than swamping him, including Fairport Convention's violinist Dave Swarbrick and Pentangle's own Terry Cox on glockenspiel. The highlights are many but include especially the charming Trotto/Salterro opener (written for a full band, which Renbourn clever replicates on a single guitar!) and the stunning eleven medley of old folk songs that starts off with 'My Johnny Was A Shoemaker' , takes a left turn through 'Weston Wynde' and somehow ends up in a very breezy 'Scarborough Fair' arranged for guitar, flute and violin. The only piece that doesn't quite work is a track that had already been something of a Pentangle regular: the slightly solemn rendition of Bach's 'Sarabande' which sounds very out of place here (this was a piece to play at posh balls - most of the others here were performed by peasants; it also dates from that tiny bit later). Classy enough to appeal to upper class ladies, rare enough in folk circles to represent the unicorn, this solo album had a little something for everybody and is a landmark album for Medieval musical scholars for several very good reasons. Along with 'Sir John A Lot' easily the best of the Renbourn solo collection. 

Bert Jansch "Rosemary Lane"

(Transatlantic, June 1971)

Tell Me What Is True Love?/Rosemary Lane/M'Lady Nancy/A Dream A Dream A Dream/Alman/ Wayward Child/Nobody's Bar/Reynardine/Silly Women/Peregrinations/ Sylvie/ Sarabande/Bird Song

"Rolling in a last veil of sunshine sheds light upon his dying hours"

By 1971 Pentangle were beginning to wonder if they'd somehow outreached themselves. While 'Cruel Sister' is in many ways the band's most impressive LP, full of complex lengthy jams and the most extreme arrangements of traditional folk numbers yet, it's not exactly made for easy listening and is a long way away from where the band all started as solo folkies. Bert's re-action was to make his next solo album much more like the old days, with just him and a guitar and a pile of songs to play and if you hadn't noticed the year on the back of the sleeve you'd be hard pressed to guess this album wasn't made at the same time as 'Bert Jansch' and 'It Don't Bother Me'. It was even 'produced' by Bill Leader - though like the old days all it really meant was that Bert turned up at Bill's house while he pressed record on a portable tape player (sadly no one lists which room of his friend's house Bert used this time around!) The archaic olde worlde lettering on the front cover also suggests that this is a low budget release rather than the solo album by the songwriting giant of a band who were being heralded as the darlings of 1969.

Bert has learnt a lot from his Pentangle experience though and there are some subtle differences here. His singing is stronger, his playing more confident and he's far less restricted by trying to stick to a folk formula: Pentangle have opened doors in his mind and while they might not be here to hold those doors open you can tell that Bert has now seen far beyond the limits of folk music. Though regarded as a bit of a mis-step at the time, perhaps because it did hark back to earlier records full of simpler songs, 'Rosemary Lane' has rightly been hailed as something of a classic in our modern day, the closest to a 'classic' Bert LP in his canon (though all fans have their favourites: 'From The Outside' is mine by a plectrum). It's certainly among his most consistent with less guitar instrumental filler and lots of new juicy originals to go alongside the seemingly never-ending supply of old folk tunes. Bert is often at his best when thinking deep mystical thoughts and few albums think as deeply as this one: opener 'Tell Me What Is True Love?' is one of the most devastating songs in his catalogue, though the tale of recklessness 'Wayward Child' and the first of Bert's anti-drinking notes to self 'Nobody's Bar' aren't far behind. This is also a pretty record though with several lovely slow ballads including the future compilation regular 'Reynardine' and the under-rated 'A Dream, A Dream, A Dream'. Fans only into the solo albums for the Pentangle links may also appreciate the guitar duet 'Peregrinations' which features a rare instrumental credited to Bert and John. There are lot of great Bert records out there - I'm not sure if this quite stacks up at the top of them (there are an awful lot of short songs here and a few too many instrumentals) but it's certainly in the top half.

'Love is like a little boy' is the striking opening line of opening song 'Tell Me What Is True Love?', 'building castles in the sand - the higher he builds them the longer they stand'. A sad pitter-patter guitar riff is set against Bert's delightfully deep croaking which as its most poignant here. One of Bert's most overlooked originals, even if it could have run a lot longer than the final two minutes.

The traditional folk song 'Rosemary Lane' has become seen as a Jansch classic and one that he'll return to often on concert and even studio album on 2000's 'Dazzling Stranger'. It's a song the whole Pentangle band would have done well, based around the old English1800 (?) poem 'Bell Bottom Trousers'. Bert, unusually, plays the role of a maid coerced into sleeping with a rough sailor, her child doomed to a future either serving the King as a soldier or born to a similar life of drudgery as another maid. Bert sings poignantly over a slow simple backing that's really powerful.

Alas after such a promising start 'M'Lady Nancy' is another of those filler guitar instrumentals and not a particularly impressive one, given that it doesn't show off Bert's range and skills. Nancy is no Anji!

We don't often get to hear much of the 'real' Bert in song - he was a very private writer who preferred writing about what he observed in the world around him or from fictional characters. But 'A Dream A Dream A Dream' sounds like one of his more 'real' songs somehow, a longing aching memory of a love that once was (maybe even his first wife?) who now seems a part of times so long ago that she's 'fading like the moon between the clouds' in his memory. In one of Bert's more elaborate metaphors he compares their relationship to a 'primrose tempting a Hummingbird'

'Alman' is another guitar instrumental, a piece that sounds more like a Renbourn style copy of a Renaissance piece but is actually by blues singer Robert Johnson - and proof that there's more links between the middle ages and blues records than people realise! It's slightly more impressive, given that Bert is effectively playing two counterpoint parts at once, but Alman is no 'Anji' either.

'Wayward Child' is another song Pentangle would have done well, with a melody that contains an unusual rocking motion and sounds very much like a traditional sea shanty.  It's a sad tale of a sailor who gave his all in life and survived the dangers of the seven seas to die on a beach in front of a group of uncomprehending children who don't understand what he's been through. Was Bert speaking in metaphors here? By 1971 Pentangle's brand of folk was being challenged by new bands on the scene but ones who had a slightly easier and more 'traditional' flavour of folk to play.

'Nobody's Bar' is one of Bert's most revealing songs and points to his drinking already spiralling out of control. Bert walks into the bar to lose his blues, a lone drinker who catches everyone's attention. All possible temptations are before him now and with the liquor loosening his morals ('It was like a vision of Heaven, without Jesus there') Bert plunges in before coming to his senses with a hangover and regretting ever going near the 'mean place'. You get the sense he's been through this cycle rather a lot by 1971.

'Reynardine' is one of the more 'fantasy' orientated Pentangle folk songs, with the title character a 'werefox' who lures innocent maidens into his clutches and carries them away to his castle. Most adaptations have the maidens coming to a sticky end, but in Bert's take on the late eighteenth century song when the maiden comes to she seduces him instead, following him to his lair again the next time she sees him! Bert's ever-busy guitar is excellent on this track and it's easy to see why it's become so popular with fans.

'Silly Women' is, despite the title, more about 'Silly Men'. The female character in the song tries everything she can to make her partner understand her needs and wishes and thinks that they've transcended the need for words in their relationship, but every so often his curt dismissal and names upset her. An impressively far thinking song for 1971 folk, but then Bert was never your token folkie.

'Peregrinations' sounds like an outtake from 'Bert and John', with the pair trying to play a very complex original that sounds as if it dates from the middle ages, which relies on real telepathy and completely perfect playing. Sadly they don't quite get the song right and it all sounds a bit rushed, as if this is the rehearsal take they're still learning rather than the master take.

Traditional song 'Sylvie' is another popular folk song that became a favourite with Bert's fans, although it's something of a struggle for his voice to be honest and might have been better kept for Jacqui to sing. It is, after all, the origin of the Pentangle classic 'Once I Had A Sweetheart', although this version comes with a three earlier verses which end where the 1969 recording comes in.

'Sarabanda' isn't the Bach 'Sarabande' Renbourn seems to have constantly been playing around with during Pentangle concerts and TV shows but a different piece written for the same dance-steps by Arcangelo Corelli.  One of the more boring songs selected from Bert's potted history lessons, it's forgettable but pleasingly short.

The album ends with the frenetic pulse of 'Bird Song', in which each species of bird becomes a metaphor for humanity to young ornithologist philosopher Bert. Every species has something of a burden to carry: the 'golden bird' is beautiful to look at but too heavy to fly, the sparrow 'has nothing' but can soar anywhere 'in God's sky' and the eagle has a 'shriek of war' but cares nothing for his own safety. Only the humble dragonfly seems to be truly free (the dragonfly will get a whole Bert Jansch song to itself by the time of reunion album 'Open The Door' in 1985).

Overall, then, several definite hits and a few misses make 'Rosemary Lane' a welcome addition to the Bert Jansch canon. The album may not always have the power of the very earliest of Bert's LPs or the originality, but the songs are handled with care and his voice especially has rarely sounded better. Not unlike the period Pentangle album 'Reflection' in fact - not quite up to what came before it perhaps but still very much under-rated. 

"The Ballad Of Tam Lin" (Soundtrack) aka "The Devil's Widow"

(Released as part of the box set 'The Time Has Come', Recorded 1971 Released 2007)

Tam Lin/The Best Part Of You

"Many young lives wasted - if only they knew - but as long as there's someone to hear then that's ok, forget about your troubles and leave them for another day!"

'Tam Lin' is a film project so early 1970s folk-rock it hurts, a re-telling of the famous folk tale of the Scottish borders where 'Tam Lin' is a man who once was lured to his death by the Queen of the Fairies and whose spirit still lives on in the land.  Thanks to some strange curse/fairy magic he owns the part of the land where he died and is 'allowed' to take what it is 'his; from anyone caught stealing from it. This is bad news for local good girl Janet who comes to his land picking flowers and finds herself first visited by Tam Lin and then mysteriously made pregnant by him. Returning to accuse the spirit, instead she learns his story and feels sorry for him, especially when he explains why he made her pregnant: the Queen of the Fairies can take a dead spirit with them on a visit to hell once every seven Halloweens and the next one is coming soon - afraid of being left with nothing, he wanted part of him to 'live on'. Brave Janet returns on the night of Halloween and sees Tam Lin being taken away by goblins whereby she pulls him from his horse and keeps him safe in the mortal world - the Queen of the Fairies is impressed with her courage and grants Tam Lin his mortal life back. It's a once popular story that has rather fallen out of favour in the modern day world and deserves to be resurrected (it reminds me of my last ATOS medical re-assessment in fact, with the Government goons from the DWP the goblins and the ridiculous long list of excuses and traditions ending up in so many innocent deaths).

The 1971 film was set to be big news, with a major cast including such up and coming actors as Ava Gardner, Ian McShane, Sinead Cusack and Joanna Lumley, with direction by Roddy McDowall, then a big star after his role in the early Planet Of The Apes films and the only film he ever directed (in fact he had to bow out of the second film after production on this project over-ran). The fact that the soundtrack included an exclusive score by not just Pentangle but their biggest folk-rock rivals Fairport Convention should also have secured this set a sort of immortality. Instead the film died a curiously quiet death, being perhaps a little too 'traditional' for film audience tastes. A second print of the film under the more salacious name 'The Devi's Widow' with a poster that looked like something out of a hammer horror film followed soon after but this didn't do much better either. Sadly the poor reception to the film meant that we never got a film soundtrack LP, which would admittedly have been rather short if solely taken from the music in the film but nevertheless would have been a valuable record for early 70s folk song collectors.

Though Fairport Convention were represented simply through a song they'd already recorded (their take on the folk song 'Tam Lin', as included on their 1969 LP 'Leige and Lief'), the Pentangle recordings were both new. The first was the band's own take on the traditional folk song, which came with a few word alterations and a much longer running time of 7:30 thanks to their instrumental parts. The resulting song sounds not unlike the longer rambling epics on 'Cruel Sister', with lots of scene setting and a very languid pace, although all the band are on good form and Jacqui especially sounds powerful and magisterial on her almost-sneered lead vocals. Their version of the folk song was never heard complete in the film: instead it would appear at the start of a scene of action in a 'storytelling' device, explaining what was happening before we 'see' it happen verse by verse. Thankfully the compilers of the 'Time Has Come' box set stuck all the relevant bits of music together as one long medley which is much easier to hear, even if it does all get a bit repetitive before the time is up. Perhaps even more interesting is the pop song 'The Best Of You' which is from the more commercial arm of Pentangle's discography with some great rock drumming from Terry Cox and a much bigger sound than usual for Pentangle complete with extra backing singers and horns. Credited to the whole band, it could easily have been a second hit single and like 'Light Flight' manages to get by with its feel of being a 'sell out' thanks to a catchy riff and all the usual Pentangle trademarks back in the right places, with a sturdy Bert Jansch guitar part and a forceful lead from Jacqui propping the whole part up. A warning to an innocent girl to 'take care' of a big bad world, it's a funkier 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' that also has the jazzy touches of the debut album and the very 60s cry that 'it's alright now - and it doesn't matter too much anyhow'. This song also appears on the 'Time Has Come' box set where it was one of the real highlights.

"This Is Pentangle"

(Transatlantic, '1971')

Wedding Dress/Ornie Wise/Will The Circle Be Unbroken?/Lord Franklin/When I Was In My Prime/Helping Hand//So Clear/Reflection

"Sad story that you cannot tell, no one is to blame"

A curious first Pentangle compilation, clearly released by Transatlantic as a knee-jerk re-action to the falling sales of their biggest cash cow. None of the big hits are here (well, big hit: 'Light Flight' is conspicuous by its absence) while even fan favourites from the early years like 'Pentangling' 'Once I Had A Sweetheart' and 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' are absent. This is, instead, more of a 'gee look at all this great stuff you missed!' style compilation as the record company tries to give an extra plug to the band's last two albums 'Cruel Sister' and 'Reflection'. Though songs like 'Lord Franklin' and 'So Clear' deserve the extra shot at success, this is a curious hodge podge of songs that doesn't even include the best from these two records (personally I'd take 'A Maid That's Deep In Love' 'Jack Orion' 'When I Get Home' and 'Cold Rain And Snow' over everything here. Together with the plain orange cover with it's very ugly lettering, this is a cash-in and nothing more. Thankfully future compilations will do Pentangle rather more justice than this.

John Renbourn  "Faro Annie"

(Transatlantic, '1971')

White House Blues/Buffalo Skinner/Kokomo Blues/Little Sadie/Shake Shake Mama/Willy O'Winsbury/The Cuckoo/Come On In My Kitchen/Country Blues/Faro Annie/Back On The Road Again

"Know that I found my own sweet thing - though I ain't goin' to tell you where or when"

Released in the gap in between the last Pentangle albums, 'reflection' and 'Solomon's Seal', 'Faro Annie' is an under-rated album that should appeal to fans of both as it contains the same slightly melancholic air and continues Renbourn's growing interest in American folk songs after Pentangle's extended tours there. In fact, as so often happens on Pentangle albums, one of the band's more beloved folk covers ('Willy O Winsbury' - in which a man tried to date a Princess but whose noble demeanour when threatened with execution changes the king's mind, the twist being he's got lands and money of his own and is actually a good match - will appear in a slightly different spelling on 'Solomon's Seal'). Terry guests on around half the album too, which marks one of the few times that John ever used drums on a solo record, while Danny too guests on a couple of tracks. No sign of Bert or Jacqui for once, though. Renbourn is on top of his game as a musician and overdubs a lot of the material, combining acoustic and electric guitars and sitars on backing tracks that resemble Pentangle's mixture of styles far more than most of his solo albums. Better yet, he actually sings more or less the way through - something that sadly doesn't happen on many of his albums - and while Renbourn isn't always a natural vocalist his voice is at its best here, warm and ragged and soft. That goes for the record actually - though the usual Pentangle big subject matters of love and death and deceit are here in abundance  the feel of this record is different, like a sagging favourite sofa (in comparison to Bert's more upright armchair style).

The one fairly major fault with this album, though, is how few original compositions are on it. In fact, if you include arrangements of tradition al material, Bert gets more credits on the album than John does! That's a shame because John wasn't exactly written out in this period, with one composition apiece on 'Reflection' and 'Solomon's'. Sadly too there's nothing here quite as 'important' as either 'So Clear' or 'Jump Baby Jump', revealing autobiographical insights into life in an important band nearing the end of the road. However in pure 'traditional folk songs given a modern makeover' terms, 'Faro Annie' is hard to beat with several excellent songs well chosen and well performed. John commented later that in his own head it was an unspoken 'goodbye' to Transatlantic after all his many years with the label (Pentangle switched over to Warner Brothers in 1972, though John stayed as a solo act for most of his life) and is an attempt to return to the 60s folk scene for one last time. Several old friends are invited from the past too: first collaborator Dorris Hendersen appears, Pete Dyson (an early folkie who sent food parcels when John nearly starved in London) and new friend Sue Draheim who plays the 'Jacqui' role for this record and will later appear in the John Renbourn Group. The band were having so much fun that they continued the sessions and recorded a full album that was never released at the time - it will turn up in the 1990s as 'The Lost Sessions' and really were physically 'lost' for a time. Though they're good, this released album still just about has the nod, being one of the best John Renbourn solo albums nobody seems to ever talk about.

'White House Blues' is a pretty folk song with a slightly dangerous feel, with two Johns and one Sue uniting on a tale of the assassination of president McKinley in 1901. Recorded less than a decade after the eerily similar death of JFK, it must have been a hard hitting recording at the time with John's voice caught between horror and weary resignation as he sighs over 'hard times' for the American public.

'Buffalo Skinners' must be the only Woody Guthrie cover ever played with sitars! Invited to hunt buffalos for money, Renbourn's employee is warned the work is hard and if he runs away he'll 'starve to death' with his wages only given out when the work is done. Of course the crooked swindler won't pay up anyway, complaining that his worker drank it all away on the job! Huh - I'd get the buffalo skinners unions on to him!

'Kokomo Blues' is an old blues number by Mississippi Fred McDowell given an added kick thanks to a rare drum part and some nice wailing harmonica. Named after the same town in Indiana The Beach Boys will have a hit with in another fifteen years, it's an odd little song that veers between the narrator denying he'll ever fall in love and trying to get his baby to go with him for a visit.

'Little Sadie' sounds rather good, an old American folk song treated to some great fiddle work by Sue that was originally known as 'Bad Lee Brown', a murderer on the run whose crime wasn't the cold hearted shooting the world seems to think it is. The sense of claustrophobia in this song is intense.

The fun and funky 'Shake Shake Mama' was the highlight of quite a few Pentangle live shows and the arrangement was cooked up by Bert and John between them, although John plays it alone here. A simple song about loneliness, with the narrator ogling girls he wants to be with but is slightly scared of ('Some of you women really know your stuff, but your clothes are all torn and your language a little too rough') John sings the piece detached but the desperation behind the words comes through clear enough. Bob Dylan recorded the track too but never quite like this, with a demented guitar solo, Pentangle bass and drums heading into jazz and a sense of things getting further and further out of control.

John's version of 'Willy O' Winsbury' is very like the Pentangle version, with a guitar and a fiddle taking the full weight of this old English song, although John's deeper vocals can't quite match the purity of Jacqui's re-recording. Both are lovely though and you can see why this lyrical, pretty song with its twists and turns was so popular with the band that never did anything that was straightforward.

There are many old folks songs called 'The Cuckoo' including the one Pentangle performed on 'Basket Of Light'. This is a different one, a sad and worried song about guilt and forgiveness with John pleading 'pardon me!' while a rigid riff plays underneath him, desperate to 'resolve' to a new chord and allow him to move on with his life. The sitar is nicely used again while the croak ion John's voice really suits this intense song.

Blues classic 'Come On In My Kitchen' as written by Robert Johnson and performed by almost everyone is perhaps the bluesiest recording any of Pentangle had made yet, with its simple strummed acoustic chords and a wailing harmonica. The narrator is regretting losing the love of his life to another man but he can't really complain - he'd already stolen her from his best friend!

'Country Blues' is an interesting one. Bert gets a co-credit for the arrangement even though, to the best of my knowledge, Pentangle never played it in public. Was the song worked up for appearance on a Pentangle album but never used? A heartbroken mother worries about her son's bad habits getting him into trouble while Sue's fiddle beats out the trouble he'll be in when he gets home. John's low key near-whispered vocals add a real tension to the song, as if this is a 'memory' of the wrong-doer and its now too late for redemption.

Title track 'Faro Annie' is the biggest production number on the album and sees the return of Danny and Terry while John plays multiple guitar parts on top of each other. Played with a similar sort of feel to the low key unsettling jams on 'Reflection', it's the only original song on the album and is an instrumental that waxes and wanes across three fascinating minutes. It's a shame the song doesn't last for longer, though, as it feels as if there was many more places this great jam could have been taken.

The album ends with the oft-covered 'Back On The Road Again', the closest thing to a straightforward rock song on the album. John's electric guitar, sounding as if it's in the distance and overlaid with wah-wah effects, is especially strong here and John seems to be mentally gearing himself up for another strenuous tour with Pentangle in the coming year.

Overall, then, 'Faro Annie' is a strong album. Though there are perhaps less out and out classics than previous LPs and only 'Shake Shake Mama; will become a regular on future live sets and compilations, there are no weak songs across the whole LP and each track has something of the casual brilliance and genre-combinations of Pentangle at their peak. More straightforward and easier to love than some of the harder-going history lessons in John's back catalogue, this is a welcome place for newcomers to start. 

"History Book"

(Transatlantic, '1972')

Courting Blues/Lucky Thirteen/Can't Keep From Crying/No Exit/Waltz/Forty-Eight//The Time Has Come/Train Song/Sally Go Round The Roses/Cruel Sister

"Saddest thing in the whole wide fable is to see your band with another record label"

'Pentangle - that was your life! Yes, your career is over now but we'd like to present you with a plain little red book while we talk all about your achievements and revisit some old past glories. Only we won't go for the obvious ones - oh no - we'll throw in half an album of solo recordings as well!' The second Pentangle compilation has a curious job to do. Released after the band left Transatlantic, for what was presumed to be a long and happy career at Warner Brothers, as it turns out the band have called it a day officially by the time this record is in the shops. Transatlantic had already done a pretty good job at summing up the band's career on the previous year's 'History Of' anyway to do the band's first five albums justice - this sequel really is just a cash-in, from it's boring plain red sleeve to the lack of credits giving the impression that the opening three songs are rare band performances rather than snipped from solo records also released on the label. Luckily, Transatlantic have a lot of songs to choose from so can get away with a third disc of highlights from the band's career without recycling anything, although any newbie fan who missed the first album might well wonder where the few songs they know from the radio have gone, replaced by a fairly conservative set of songs from the band's first four albums (oddly there's nothing from 'Reflection' here) plus the set's lone rarity the Renbourn solo song 'Forty-Eight'. Amazingly this compilation has made its way onto CD, where a small photo of the band has been added to the bottom right hand corner of the sleeve though no songs have been added, giving this compact disc an awfully short running time (it wasn't exactly generous on vinyl).Personally I'd stick with the earlier compilation or the extended sets from the CD era 'Light Flight' or 'The Time Has Come'.

A Now Complete List Of Pentangle Related Articles At Alan’s Album Archives:

Surviving TV Appearances 1968-2000 and The Best Unreleased Recordings