One of the indisputable facts of musical history with which absolutely nobody could ever disagree, is that the group Pentangle was one of the most exciting and innovative combos in the folk world, pushing the boundaries in a totally unique way; in retrospect, it’s been universally regarded as the archetypal folk-meets-jazz supergroup, whose many musical roots and branches have since proved both massively influential and eternally relevant and cutting-edge – indeed, many have opined that the word “eclectic” might well have been coined for Pentangle and their (at the time) nigh uncategorisable music!
The group originally came together in 1967, with the fabulous, unsurpassable lineup of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn (guitars), Jacqui McShee (vocals), Danny Thompson (bass) and Terry Cox (drums & percussion); it lasted just six years before splitting up in 1973. Further incarnations of the Pentangle brand-name, involving some of its original members in various permutations, were configured from the early-1980s onwards, but it was not until February 2007, when those original members of Pentangle collectively received a BBC Radio 2 Lifetime Achievement Award and then performed two songs together for the first time in 25 years. That same year, Pentangle’s lasting contribution to folk music was duly recognised with the release of the lavish, and truly essential, four-disc box-set The Time Has Come, which gathered together a veritable host of rare outtakes and live tracks. And the following year saw an official reformation of the original band, with a couple of appearances on the Jools Holland TV programme (in April and May) followed towards the end of June by a special concert at the Royal Festival Hall, a 40th anniversary celebration of the recording at that very venue of the landmark, pin-drop live set that formed one disc of the 1968 double-LP release Sweet Child.
That 29th June concert kicked off a full 12-date reunion tour, which proved a total success on every count, entirely transcending any hint of a mere exercise in cash-in nostalgia and delivering the musical goods with flying colours that demonstrated beyond any shadow of doubt that the group members were still five of the finest musical practitioners on the planet. The tour was followed one month later by an appearance at Brecon’s Green Man Festival – and that was basically that, largely due to the onset of throat cancer for Jansch which more or less put paid to any significant degree of further group music-making.
It’s understood that plans were afoot to release a live album from the tapes of the 2008 tour; Jansch supervised the mixing and sequencing of the tracks, while Renbourn prepared the album masters. Finale now brings the project to fruition at long last, and its long-delayed release this month serves as the finest possible memorial to these two iconic musicians who, tragically, were to die in 2011 and 2015 respectively.
Such is the degree of creative intelligence and musical sensitivity with which the 21 items have been sequenced for the release, though, that the 93-minute span of this two-disc set feels less like an arbitrary/rudimentary assemblage and more like a convivial session bringing a vitally fresh reappraisal of familiar, favourite material. Right from the outset, the live performances present something of a wall of sound that evidences abundant accumulated maturity, in a tapestry where the various interlocking, interweaving parts miraculously form a cohesive whole, with no trace of tentative disjointedness and where each musician is totally immersed in, and at home with, the material, a familiarity born of keen personal empathy.
Each selection receives rapturous applause during what feels like a seamless concert experience (for all that the sequence has been edited together from eight of the 12 dates). The repertoire covered resembles a career retrospective for the halcyon years 1967-73, with the later albums receiving decent proportional representation; interestingly though, only a small handful of the tracks from the live segment of the original Sweet Child double crop up on this set (Market Song, No More My Lord, The Time Has Come, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, and Bruton Town – the last-named being itself a revisit of the first album Finale). It proves interesting too, making comparisons with the scoring and arrangements on the new reading – for instance, I was surprised to find John’s sitar absent from Once I Had A Sweetheart – while although the trademark Pentangle tricky shifts in time signatures may now sound natural rather than radical (there’s nothing to beat the shock of the new!), the musical invention still makes a full-on impact at this temporal remove.
Finale is a magnificent record in all respects. Treasure this set, for we’ll not see the like of Pentangle again.
The Finale double-CD is released 7th October on Topic Records (via ProperMusic Distribution)
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