Monday 11 June 2018

Pentangle: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important, along with one particularly good one that summed up the band's setlist during their live peak (or one of them, anyway). Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to (in some cases anyway) last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely! Pentangle, though, are one of those AAA bands who very much studio-bound. In their lifetime (including a smattering of reunion concerts) they only ever played around one hundred gigs in total. The most famous of these – a headlining show at London’s Royal Festival Hall, where only the most serious of musicians were allowed to play at the time (at least until The Who ends up there a year later and suddenly its open house!) – is the only sort of live record in Pentangle’s original history already. This is joined, though, by the return there forty years later which an ailing band know will be their last. Even so, there are some other key gigs that deserve their place way in front of the sun so here we are:

1)  Where: The Horsehoe Pub, London When: February 5th 1967 Why: First Gig Setlist: Unknown but probably included most of the first album

John Renbourn owned the Horseshoe Pub in London’s Tottenham Court Road and he and Bert were kind of the ‘house band’, so it was a logical place for him and Bert to invite all the performers they thought would sound good in Pentangle. They arrived in dribs and drabs, with no set auditions – just the chance to get up and play in front of the patrons who were more interested in their beer anyway. The band weren’t meant to be auditioning on their ‘own time’ or aiming for the big time – they told fellow pub manager Bruce Dunnet that they were trying to find a backing band for Pentangle and crossed their fingers that he wouldn’t know that Pentangle was actually a ‘super group’ made up of the folk world’s elite. The band also hid things from Gerry Bron, who was proudly touting himself as Bert’s ‘exclusive manager’ and was busy grooming him into becoming ‘the next Bob Dylan’. Bert hated the idea – he was a shy retiring type who hated the attention and would rather be surrounded by friends – the rest of Pentangle weren’t so keen on him becoming their manager either. At this stage the ‘band’ only comprised Bert, John and Jacqui, with Danny and Terry added over the course of the next few weeks, but it was the real start of Pentangle and what they could become. Jacqui only knew John – she had never met Bert but knew of his reputation. Jacqui was herself the part-owner of a second folk club, The Red Lion in Surrey, which became a second regular Pentangle haunt. With so few people around (even if the Horseshoe was bigger than any pub I know, with 40 seats, it wasn’t exactly busy that night) nobody seems to remember what was played that night. My guess is that the band played a lot of their first album, which was itself already part of Bert and John’s act, with a few of the folk songs Jacqui had been singing in hers. We don’t know what it sounded like – probably Pentangle minus the bass and drum jams – but it must have been pretty good as this tentative idea that could have so easily gone wrong was strong enough for the trio to stick their necks out and pass on what were three very promising solo careers to work together.

2)  Where: The Royal Festival Hall, London When: June 29th 1968 Why: Biggest Gig? Setlist: Waltz Way Behind The Sun The Time Has Come Let No Man Steal Your Thyme So Early In The Spring Hear My Call No More My Lord La Rotta-The Earl Of Salisbury Market Song Bruton Town A Woman Like You No Exit Haitian Fighting Song Goodbye Pork Pie Hat Bells John Donne Song Watch The Stars Turn Your Money Green Travelling Song

The first Pentangle gig not played in a pub (even a 400 seater one) was…at The Royal Festival Hall! Now that’s a career move! The folk world had been eagerly anticipating Pentangle after hearing that so many ‘big’ names were going to be in it. However Pentangle were more interested in working together in a studio setting and practicing their improvisational telepathy before getting a chance to work together in front of people and had already recorded their first album, released at the beginning of June. To promote it their new manager Jo Lustig wanted to think big and when the band were reluctant to play too many shows looked around for the most prestigious venue he could possibly find. With a band unsure about what to do next, but with a huge repertoire to pull from together and solo, it made sense to pay for the gig with a live album, which was released the following year as half of second album ‘Sweet Child’. Pentangle were audibly nervous (particularly if you listen to the bonus tracks added to the end of the ‘Sweet Child’ CD decades later) and it’s no surprise: they were used to playing in front of a few hundred people at some word-of-mouth gigs but suddenly ended up playing in front of a few thousand. They were, though, naturals. The audience at the Royal Festival Hall, were more used to the stuffy classical world who weren’t anywhere near as engaging or as self-deprecating as Pentangle, accidentally announcing the wrong songs from their hand-written set lists or making awkward conversation on stage. The folk fans, too, had never got together in such a big way before and were cheering the band on for the most part, thrilled to be a ‘big’ thing in music circles at last. Pentangle didn’t take the easy way out either, playing relatively few tracks from their recently released album and already looking ahead to the next one with a combination of folk, jazz and blues originals. The joy was in hearing songs that one of the five had been playing solo or with their own bands now performed with the other four’s distinctive additions – in this era Pentangle really was a ‘band’, even if they did break off for multiple solo or duo performances still. The event, full of such nerves, went down very well and in many ways its Pentangle’s peak: they will never again blow their audience away or play to quite so many people (with the exception of the next gig on our list…) Alas the band won’t be back for another forty years!

3)  Where: The Isle Of Wight Festival, UK When: August 30th 1970 Why: Other Biggest Gig? Setlist: Light Flight Rain and Snow

We’ve covered the Isle of Wight Festival on our pages a few times now. The British equivalent of Woodstock in the planning stages, it ended up more like Altamont when a great percentage of the audience baulked at the high prices and broke the fences and burnt the burger vans in anger at the intense capitalism of music. Pentangle didn’t get the headlines the likes of headliners The Who, Jethro Tull or The Moody Blues and by the tikme of their slot on the final night (Sunday) most of the drama had died down and a lot of the fans had gone home ready for work on the Monday morning. However most sets played were interrupted by something extra-curricular happening and so it proved with Pentangle, whose performance were interrupted by a German woman who proceeded to lecture the crowd about her home politics and how Britain should watch out. A bemused Pentangle just let her talk, unlike The Who (where Pete Townshend kicked Abbie Hoffman physically off the stage) or the Moodies (who made puzzled remarks from the stage). As for the setlist, it seems odd to me given the many thousands of people who went that nobody seems to remember what music Pentangle played that night. We know for a fact that they did ‘Light Flight’ – their biggest hit – thanks to a very grotty audio copy that was taped by a fan (and which has since been uploaded to Soundcloud; it reveals a nervy Pentangle who are all slightly out of sync with one another, only really getting back together in time for the ending). We also think they did ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ thanks to a fan’s notes of what they played. But we don’t know anything else – Pentangle were passed over for the ‘Message To Love’ film of the event despite being one of the biggest acts that year and there never was a various artists audio CD of the event the way there was for Monterey and Woodstock. It seems likely, though, that Pentangle would be playing their usual set around 1970: big on songs from ‘Basket Of Light’ with a few from ‘The Pentangle’ and ‘Sweet Child’ thrown in, plus a few previews from ‘reflections’ (I would be very surprised if they didn’t play ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’, for instance, which ends up becoming their most performed song after the two listed here). Pentangle didn’t quite make the splash they were expecting to, but you sense they were fine with that: this wasn’t a band built for the open air in front of millions of baying fans looking for rock and roll and Pentangle only played two festivals again (they were an unlikely choice to play Glastonbury in 2011 and The Cambridge Folk Festival in 1982, their first reunion with memories of the Royal Albert Hall, except for poor Terry whose leg was in plaster after a fall!) That show was the last all the original Pentangle played until 2008…

4)  Where: Sydney Town Hall, Australia When: August 12th 1972 Why: Farewell Gig Setlist: Blue Monk  

So it ends, not with a bang but a whimper. By 1972 and a mere five gigs after the Isle of Wight performance an unhappy Pentangle are already thinking about splitting (something that won’t actually happen until the following year). This one-off Australian appearance had been booked long before and was the first gig the band had played in six months. They were rusty and below par if fan memories are to be believed, with the sense of lethargy that had set in while making final album ‘Solomon’s Seal’ and their UK tour had ended in disarray when Danny Thompson had become poorly, leaving them in debt due to cancelled gigs and already facing a lack of funds after being messed around by record label Transatlantic. They could have done what so many other bands have done and make music cheaply and quickly with constant touring – but that wasn’t really Pentangle’s style, leaving this very muted and low-key final gig their last. Again we don’t know what the band played that night, probably a mixture of the same material from their past as they didn’t really perform the ‘Solomon’s’ material on stage. The exception is ‘Blue Monk’, the last song introduced to the Pentangle setlist and probably by the band’s rhythm section as it’s a challenging Theolonious Monk instrumental full of daring bass and drum improvisation sections. Pentangle never did put it on album and it finds them turning full circle, unbroken or otherwise,. Back to the jazz of their first LP. After the band split Bert and John picked their solo careers back up, Jacqui briefly retired to have a family then reformed a new version of the band in 1980, Danny went into session work and converted to Islam whilst Terry switched gears completely to run a restaurant in Menorca.

5)  Where: The Royal Festival Hall, London When: August 11th 2011 Why: Very Final Gig Setlist: Let No Man Steal Your Thyme Light Flight Mirage Hunting Song Once I Had A Sweetheart In Time People On The Highway ‘The Daemon Lover’ Cruel Sister ‘Soho’ ‘Kokomo Blues’ Bruton Town I’ve Got A Feeling Goodbye Pork Pie Hat No More My Lord Sally Free and Easy Wedding Dress Pentangling Cold Rain and Snow

Pentangle first reunited for a German tour in 2008, highlighted by their first return to the Royal Festival Hall on the fortieth anniversary of their original concert. However we’ve plumped for their very final show from a one-off reunion three years later that ended up being the final gig they ever played, not least because it was Bert’s final public appearance of any kind too, just two months before his death. The change in years is not lost on the band, ‘we’re being sponsored by Saga’ (an old folk’s insurance and pension scheme in Britain) being Danny’s opening joke to the audience. ‘Just in from the Dorking Delta’ is Bert’s wry quip as he walks on to the stage. It’s a worthy show to bow out on, full of all the old favourites any fan could ask for and a sense of camaraderie that had been missing from the band’s early 1970s shows. There was one final song added to the Pentangle discography too: ‘The Daemon Lover’, the original which had been adapted and shaped into another Pentangle favourite [  ] ‘The House Carpenter’ heard in its original setting at last, though still with the Renbourn sitar part from the ‘Backet Of Light’ arrangement. The band also played Bert’s solo song ‘Soho’ for the one and only time – it sounds mighty good too with Pentangle harmonies. The final song Pentangle ever played in concert turned out to be ‘Cold Rain and Snow’, an unlikely song for August but a fitting one given that this tale of rejection brought the Pentangle catalogue of maidens, witches and sailors bang up to date with a tale of marital strife. Alas Bert’s death put an end to talks about a proper bona fide reunion album, but the band went out more or less where they’d begun – playing to a huge crowd, on a high, in a prestigious setting, with fans waiting on their every word. Unfortunately only five minutes worth of the show (playing ‘Pentangling’) seems to have survived, but this was shot miles away from the stage by a fan. It reveals a very cautious, stately Pentangle judging by this one extract, though with some typically great guitar interplay. You might be interested, though, in the two other 2011 reunions gigs, played at the Cambridge Folk Festival and Glastonbury, for which a lot of footage exists on Youtube and reveal a band who very much still had ‘it’.

The musical baton thing works both ways – sometimes younger or contemporary or even older acts hear music that they like and want it in their discography too. That tends to be particularly true of groups who are big or who sum up a place and time for a particular generation so well. Pentangle, though, don’t seem to have inspired the run of star-logo sprogs I was expecting. Where are the modern musicians reaching back to our grand past or using it to re-shape our future? The trouble with tracking down items for this article really isn’t helped by the fact that Pentangle didn’t write much of their original material and many of the songs they covered are lost in the mists of time. If you widen the scope to Pentangle’s solo catalogue, though, there are still some juicy cover versions out there that every fan should hear.

1)  Al Stewart ‘Soho’ (Past Present and Future, 1973)

Three years before the ‘Year Of The Cat’ (actually 1976 was the Year of the Dragon in astrological terms, oddly – 1974 was the year of the cat!) Al Stewart was another hungry wannabe folk-rock songwriter, sharing a flat with Paul Si9mon and hanging round the same clubs as Pentangle. Like many a folkie he was a passionate fan of the Bert and John albums, together and apart, and recorded a lovely version of this favourite from the ‘Bert and John’ album (together, this time). With a softer, higher voice than Bert Al gives this song quite a different feel, while the quicker tempo makes it feel oddly enough like a period glam rock song. The new arrangement adds a whole pile of instruments not on the original (three guitars, organ, bass and drums, plus a flamenco guitar solo and what sounds like a guiro) which makes Soho sound like a noisier and more frenetic place than ever, full of ‘anticipation, disinclination…drinking dregs from the bottom of the kegs’. This arrangement doesn’t bring across the bleary-eyed been-awake-too-long feel of the song but it does capture the manic-ness well, as if this version is taking place in the day and Bert ‘n’ John’s at night.

2)  Penelope Houston [  ] I’ve Got A Feeling (Snapshot, 2003)

This Pentangle very English original, which was one of the jazziest things they ever played, wouldn’t seem a natural fit given Penelope’s usual style – she came to fame in San Francisan punk band ‘The Avengers’ where screams were her speciality. However she does a really good job at rebranding herself on this 2003 album with songs that reveal far more of a subtlety to her work and this song works better than most. Penelope has a very modern 21st century voice despite being a mere twenty years younger than Pentangle and ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ is a lovely timeless floaty kind of a song that can be done in any time, including ours. With less sensual purring than Jacqui but a much bigger lascivious smile, Houston seems much more of an innocent on this song, which gets rid of the jazzy ‘wave rolling’ beat for something much more reliable and constant. This makes her sound as if she’s going to get her man for sure, rather than the ‘dance’ the Pentangle characters lead, but that kind of fits the song too. Excellent modern jazz.

3)  Burton Bradstock [  ] Train Song (Youtube, 2012)

Watch here You won’t find this cover in the shops and even on Youtube it’s not exactly clocking up the views (152 as I write this and I’m still the only person to give it a thumbs up!) This terrific version of the ‘Basket Of Light’ standard is doing much more than making up the numbers, however. Pentangle’s original blends all sorts of styles together, as is their customary sound, but this pure jazz arrangement makes it sound much more like a long lost track from the band’s debut album. Jimmy Cannon’s confident vocal is so different to Bert’s shyly sensitive portrayal and the backing is exquisite, with Jacqui’s ‘vocal’ part switched to Darian Ford’s piano, a rolling bass by Rhiaan Voslo of which Danny Thompson would be proud and a drum part by Tim Giles that would keep even Terry Cox on his toes. Less exotic than the album original, the basic song is used as the launchpad for some extraordinary scat-singing and an improvisational ending that misses the sawing feedbacking guitar but does a really good job of sounding like a train going down the rails. Named for a village in West Dorset, ‘Burton Bradstock’ is, you could say, the gentler country holiday compared to Pentangle’s moody inter-city train service but the song is more than good enough to handle both interpretations.

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

Surviving TV Appearances 1968-2000 and The Best Unreleased Recordings

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