Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bert Jansch Graces Worcester

Bert Jansch is making rare stateside concert appearances as a special guest on Neil Young’s current 14-date “Twisted Road” tour. Unfortunately, aside from hardcore guitar enthusiasts and British folk fanatics, few people seem to be aware of who Jansch is and how lucky we are to be graced with these appearances.

Neil knows. He has called Jansch the Jimi Hendrix of acoustic guitar and acknowledged the spikey fingerpicker’s early and lasting influence on his own playing. Bert’s unique stylings are readily heard in Neil’s early work with Buffalo Springfield as well as his award-winning 1993 Harvest Moon L.P.

Along with Davy Graham and Anne Briggs, Jansch was in the vanguard of the British folk movement of the 1960s. Without him, there wouldn’t have been a Fairport Convention, Nick Drake or his own jazz-folk-blues group Pentangle, among many others. Jimmy Page’s early acoustic guitar style draws heavily on Jansch’s seminal 1965 and 1966 albums, and Neil has admitted that his own “Ambulance Blues,” from 1974’s On the Beach, is derived directly from Bert’s style.

Jansch has recorded dozens of albums over the years, but stateside concert appearances have been rare. Apparently, it took the Neil’s esteem and influence to change that.

At Friday’s performance in Worcester, Mass., the nearly septuagenarian Scotsman, appeared surprisingly youthful and relaxed, decked out in blue jeans, a blue work shirt and incandescent white leather sneakers. The only indication of his advancing years was his departure from the stage after his set: he walked with the gait of a guy who has known back pain. His fingers were as fleet and fluid as ever, his voice rich and resonant.

I missed the first two songs of Jansch’s 35-minute set, arriving just in time to catch him running through his classic “Black Water Side” from 1966’s Jack Orion. This was followed by seven more smoothly rendered blues-tinged folk songs – part Davy Graham, part Big Bill Broonzy. As the crystal clear yet chunky acoustic guitar lines rung out through the hall, it seemed at times as if there were two guitarists on stage, interweaving intricate melodies behind the lilting vocals. Such is Bert’s musical magic. For me, the highlights, sprinkled among a few lesser-known tunes, were Jackson C. Frank’s “Carnival” and Bert’s own “Poison” ... but it was all good.

The Worcester audience was politely enthusiastic during Jansch’s set, but clearly not that aware of the opener’s legendary stature. It was just short of heartbreaking to hear Bert only somewhat facetiously thank the crowd for not throwing things at him as he wrapped up his performance.

For his part, Neil attempted to clue the crowd in during his set: “I hope that you appreciate and realize how lucky you are to hear Bert Jansch,” he said. “It’s a real pleasure to appear on the same stage as him.”

The pleasure was all ours.

(Click here for my review of Neil’s performance.)

This video of Bert performing “Black Water Side” is from about 30 years ago. Jimmy Page borrowed heavily (to put it mildly) from Bert’s rendition of this traditional folk tune for his slightly more Indian-flavored version, “Black Mountain Side,” on the first Led Zeppelin album. Questionable song attribution aside, Page (like Neil Young) has readily admitted Jansch’s huge influence on his playing in interviews over the years.

• Since 1965, Bert Jansch has released dozens of albums under his own name and with his group Pentangle. Of the solo material, my favorites are Jack Orion (early period), Rosemary Lane (middle period) and The Black Swan (later period).

• Bert Jansch’s website has more background and his MySpace page has some streaming audio samples.

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