Bert Jansch: A Man I’d rather be (Part 2)
Earth Recordings – 23 February 2018
Part 2 of the Bert Jansch reissue, A Man I’d Rather Be from Earth Recordings hoves into view. As with Part 1, this is released as a four-album book set that pulls us through the late sixties and into the early seventies. At the start of this period, Bert is already part of Pentangle, which got together in 1967. In 1968 they had two hit albums – The Pentangle and Sweet Child and in 1970 they released Basket of Light. The success of the band over this period can be put down to the imaginative mix of the members, bringing jazz and folk idioms together with rock and early music.
For many music styles, especially those under the broad umbrella of popular music, this was a period about trying out different things, of experimentation. There were very few pigeon holes within which people would be pushed, musically speaking. A great era of inventiveness and trial, and a lot of it driven by musicians brought up in at least one of the more ‘traditional’ styles of folk, jazz or blues. Bert Jansch is at the heart of this, working with the others to find new sounds, new ways, reinterpreting traditional songs, merging styles.
The four albums on Part 2 are Nicola (1967), Birthday Blues (1969), Rosemary Lane (1971) and Moonshine (1973), and do offer a journey across the 6 years, that takes Bert from style to style and from strength to strength. The first of this quartet, Nicola, has been described as the ‘pop’ album but there is way more variety than one might think. The title track is a pleasant guitar piece with bass strings, drums and flute, starting out as an early music piece, sliding into jazz until the last 30 seconds when it stops and returns to the main theme. Life Depends On Love has the archetypal strings that for me are an almost turn off – but then one track out of four albums has to be forgiven – and anyway it is mercifully short at 1:48. Going to the other extreme, the highlight is Go Your Way My Love, which I think was the first track of Bert’s I was introduced to in those dimly distant days. The guitar technique is very evident – bright, energetic – and his voice most suited to this style.
Birthday Blues thankfully shuns some of the excesses of that era’s pop and explores a more diverse sound, typified by A Woman Like You bringing the sort of rhythms one would associate with Pentangle, particularly on this track with Terry Cox’s drums. One would not be surprised to learn that most of Pentangle appear on this album at various times.
Rosemary Lane is a return to a simpler more folky sound. I suppose the two stand-out tracks would be Rosemary Lane and Reynardine, the latter popping up on most Jansch compilations. These two tracks would have given the 1971 listener some pleasure in their length as well, running to 4:00 and 5:19 respectively. When we reach Moonshine, Pentangle has fallen apart and Bert has a clear run ahead. The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, the Ewan MacColl song, was first recorded by Bert on Jack Orion (1966) but only as an instrumental. On this later, vocal version, we can hear a more gentle style. Even the strings on his guitar don’t get the punishment he dealt out seven years earlier. The background vocals on this track are by Mary Hopkin and the fiddle is that of Aly Bain.
For me, this set of four albums very much coincides with my point of entry into Bert’s music and therefore I may be a tad biased if I say that this is as good a run of albums as you could find. It is also a very interesting set as they cover this period where he was both developing as a solo performer and also as part of a highly successful group. It is now very clear to see the influence that Pentangle had on him. One cannot expect there not to be any influence, but I suppose the question is, has what has been absorbed sent him the right way? Bit of a stupid question really, given that he was still performing months before his death in 2011 – and his music still sells. So, yes, he turned out okay despite being in Pentangle, but then that was no bad thing either.
For the majority who know Bert’s music, here is a good chance to prepare for what I am sure will be a lively discussion entitled “When was Bert Jansch’s best period?” For those of you that don’t know his music (really?), I don’t think you would find a better starting point. For me, I’m very grateful to Earth Recordings for this reminder of those daze….