Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pentangle



GREAT groups don’t just happen. They are a product of their times. Guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourn and vocalist Jacqui McShee were the names I associated with Pentangle, although it was, as its name suggests, a five-person outfit, which also included Danny Thompson on double bass and Terry Cox on drums.
McShee had a voice of sublime beauty. Indeed, on the song Cruel Sister, off an album by the same title, which for some time was either in our collection or borrowed from elsewhere on a regular basis, she sings a capella, her powerful voice able to execute the numerous verses of this traditional English folk song with ease. And it was sexy. Not in the kitsch modern way of using seductive lyrics or making suggestive sounds. No, on this and several other similar songs, McShee’s voice seemed to resonate with something deep inside my teenage, testosterone-charged physiognomy. Indeed, it has the same effect today, nearly 40 years later.
The other side to the group which set them apart from their contemporaries was the brilliance of Jansch and Renbourn. We also got to know Jansch’s work as a solo musician, his unique style of acoustic guitar finger-picking and voice steeped in the old English folk tradition setting him apart. While Renbourn albums also floated around at the time, I only really got into his music from around 1990, after picking up a tape in London.
But how did Pentangle fit into the architecture of the folk-rock scene as it evolved in the late 1960s? Because, while I was lucky to have been introduced to their music at such a young age – just into my teens – it is only now that I am, for the first time, really trying to find out the story behind the music.
Ah, immediately Wikipedia hits the right note. They describe them as “a British folk-rock (or folk-jazz) band”. And that is an important distinction, because Pentangle were always that much more progressive than the other folk-rock outfits. In particular, they seemed to rely on an acoustic bass on most of their early albums. Indeed, thinking about it, they also seemed to eschew electric instruments as well, placing them in the jazz realm simply by virtue of their going beyond commercial folk-rock parameters. Indeed, several songs have a distinct jazz feeling, despite the underlying songs still being English folk music.
Wikipedia tells us the name, Pentangle, was chosen to represent the five band members, but the pentagram symbol obviously had a number of mystical associations. One cited is that it was the “device on Sir Gawain’s shield in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which held a fascination for Renbourn”.
Bert Jansch and John Renbourn



Renbourn and Jansch, says Wikipedia, were already popular musicians on the British folk-scene when the group was formed in 1967. They had done several solo albums each, and a duet LP, Bert And John. The names come back to me. Jack Orion was the name of a Jansch album I heard in my teens, and it is cited for a duet between the two guitarists which features their “folk baroque” use of “complex, inter-dependent guitar parts”.
They evidently shared a house in St John’s Wood, the London borough Jagger and Richards immortalised in Mother’s Little Helper.
Jacqui McShee

And the girl with a golden voice? Jacqui McShee, it emerges, began her career as an unpaid “floor singer” in several London folk clubs. By 1965 she ran such a club at a pub, the Red Lion, in Sutton, Surrey – which, bizarrely, is somewhere I visited briefly to visit my brother-in-law in the 1990s, though not the pub, which I did not know about. She befriended Jansch and Renbourn when they performed there. Wikipedia says she sang on Renbourn’s Another Monday album, and later performed live with him at a club in 1966. Ah, and it emerges that Thompson and Cox were already prominent jazz musicians at this stage, having played together in a couple of bands, including one which also boasted the great John McLaughlin on electric guitar. (Now there is a name to conjure with. I had totally forgotten him, even though I went through a brief McLaughlin Stage. I had not intended including him in this project, but clearly I shall have to attempt to do so…)
Thompson had worked with Renbourn, so the union was a natural progression. In 1967, it emerges, Jansch and Renbourn were set up at a nightclub in the Horseshoe Hotel in Tottenham Court Road. They were joined by McShee and later by Thompson and Cox. The eclectic range of influences shaped their distinctive sound, ranging from jazz, to McShee’s love of traditional music, to Renbourn’s “early music” interest and Jansch’s blues interests.
The time was clearly ripe for them, since their first public concert as Pentangle was a sell-out at the Royal Festival Hall in May, 1967. Thereafter followed short tours of Denmark and UK, before they acquired a new manager, Jo Lustig.
The Pentangle

Their self-titled first LP, for Transatlantic Records, was released in May, 1968. It was an all-acoustic affair. While I have probably not heard this album in toto, it is interesting to note Richie Unterberger’s comments about it on Wikipedia. He said it was “more a folk-jazz-blues stew that it was folk-rock”. He said its “daring, irreverent spirit” had “immediately connected with rock-oriented listeners”. It was a commercial success too, stopping just short of the UK Top 20. The first track, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, I have certainly heard before, but possibly not by Pentangle. And the song Pentangling rings a bell. I must have heard the compilation album by the same name from 1973.
Sweet Child

In June, 1968, their performance at the Royal Albert Hall was recorded and formed part of their second album, Sweet Child, released in November, 1968. This double album included both live and studio tracks, many of them written by Jansch. Wikipedia says it is “generally regarded as their creative high point”. Having read the Wikipedia notes on the album, I can confidently say I never heard Sweet Child – and more’s the pity. By all accounts it is a classic which includes jazz, blues, folk and a whole lot in between among its more than two dozen tracks.
Basket of Light

But I certainly heard Basket of Light, from mid-1969, which Wikipedia says was their greatest commercial success, with Light Flight becoming a surprise hit single, after it was used as theme music for a TV drama series, Take Three Girls, the first BBC drama broadcast in colour. An all acoustic album, Basket of Light reached No 5 in the UK, with the single Light Flight making it to No 43. The circular central label on the album was fairly unique in that on one side, Side One, it had the colourful Transatlantic label, and on the other all the details of the songs from both sides.
Here it emerges that Light Flight was written by the band. Wikipedia says it is “a complex song based on jazz rhythms somewhat reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s work”. I gave this album a fresh listen, quietly on my old Sony record player, and was suddenly hit by what a different sound it was, even when compared to Steeleye Span and Fairport Convetion. This was one highly skilled band with innate good taste. I was remiss earlier in undervaluing the jazz-inspired rhythm section. But it is clear that Thompson and Cox play as important a role as do Jansch and Renbourn, while McShee’s contribution is, as they say in Afrikaans, vanselfsprekend – it speaks, or sings, for itself. “Let’s get away, you say, find a better place, / Miles and miles away from the city’s race,” is how she starts Light Flight, while Thomopson’s bass buzzes along beautifully. Between verses, the acoustic guitars of Jansch and Renbourn fill in the spaces with intricate lead breaks. During the slow section, McShee also overdubs her voice at a different pitch, just to make it even more hauntingly beautiful. “Look around the someone lying in the sunshine / Marking time, hear the sighs, close your eyes …” Then that catching “Ba – da – pa do dad a – ba – pa do da da …” Having heard this song numerous times, it is so great to finally have the lyrics, and to discover how good they are. “Stepping from cloud to cloud passing years of light / Visit the frosty stars in the backward flight / Star becomes a vision, never mind the meaning, / Hidden there, moving fast, it won’t last …” This is a poem for the space age; for a time when scientists were unraveling the mysteries of time and space. “Time passes all too soon, how it rushes by, / Now a thousand moons are about to die / No time to reflect on what the time was spent on / Nothing left, far away, dreamers fade”. Then comes that slow, dreamy section: “Strange visions pass me by, winging sweetly close inside / O’ver the wa-ter, ah …” The last verse: “Swirling, the water rise up above my head. / Gone are the curling mists how they all have fled. / Look, the door is open, step into the space / Provided there.” As with Cream, it was essential for progressive groups playing excellent music to also use great lyrics, like these. Traditional folk songs were another wonderful source.
On Once I Had A Sweetheart, in which McShee’s vocals are at their crystalline clearest. Renbourn’s sitar-work, alongside Cox’s prominent glockenspiel – such a hallmark of this album – are prominent on a song described on the album sleeve as a “well-known American variant of the English traditional song, A Maid Sat A-Weeping…” “Once I had a sweetheart and now I have none (repeated) / He’s gone and left me, he’s gone and left me / Gone and left me in sorrow to mourn.” I love the repetition of simple, poignant lines. “Last night in sweet slumber I dreamed I did see / Last night in sweet slumber I dreamed I did see / My own darling jewel sat smiling by me / My own darling jewel sat smiling by me”. The disappointment is magnified through repetition: “But when I awakened I found it not so (repeated) / My eyes like some fountain with tears overflowed / Eyes like some fountain with tears overflowed.” So he finds solace by running away, saying he’ll “venture through England, through France and through Spain”, and that “my life I’ll venture on watery main”. He’ll “set sail of silver and steer toward the sun”, adding that “my false love will weep for me after I’m gone / After I’m gone, After I’m gone, After I’m gone”. This sense of resignation is expertly interpreted by the band, who manage to weave its mood right into every note and nuance.
Jansch’s vocals are to the fore on Springtime Promises, which Wikipedia says is a Cox composition, though the album credits all but Cox … The sleeve says it was written after a bus ride on an early spring day, and the song certainly is evocative of the advent of spring. “Summertime is with us once again / Flowers blooming everywhere again / And the cold days of winter are behind us now / And the springtime promises all come true”.
Only in the UK, surely, could a whole song about the seasons be written with such feeling. Again, the acoustic lead guitar throughout is superb as each verse traverses the seasons: “The cold days of winter took the sun away / But the springtime promises all came true”.
Lyke Wake Dirge is one of the songs on the album I thought I couldn’t relate to, until I gave it a fresh listen. It is, says the album cover, “an early English poem concerning the progress of the soul in after-life”, with imagery that “predates Christianity by many thousand years”. It says the idea is preserved in children’s games like Hopscotch and London Bridge Is Falling Down. Seemingly incongruous, the song is indeed a showcase of the vocal prowess of the band, as all join to sing its ancient lyrics, to wonderfully understated acoustic accompaniment. Ever wondered what they were actually singing? All I could make out clearly was the line, And Christ receive thy soul. Well the opening chorus actually reads: “This ae nighte, this ae nighte, / Every nighte and alle, / Fire and fleet and candle-lighte, / And Christe receive thy saule.” You can almost feel yourself being transported back in time … Then the verse: “When thou from hence away art past / Every nighte and alle, / To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last; / And Christe receive thy saule.” And so it continues in a language all the more beautiful for the obscurity of the language – though, while its imagery may predate Christ, it is clearly a Christian dirge.
A three-part vocal arrangement, the final track on Side 1 is indeed on track. Train Song is where the album gets its title from. The lines, after a roller-coaster ride, read: “Love is a basket of light: grasp it so tight.” The album cover says it is “a lament for the passing of the steam train”. Again this bluesy song features Jansch on vocals with McShee doing a sort of chant as it explores the percussive sounds of a steam locomotive, before slowing to what Wikipedia calls “a more dream-like middle section with McShee’s ‘instrumental vocalisation’ soaring above the band”. It then gathers speed for a finale featuring Danny Thompson’s bowed bass. Listening to this afresh, it is a remarkable sound, evoking the sliding of steel wheels on steel rails as the brakes are applied and both the train and the song come to a halt.
Side 2 starts with Hunting Song, another McShee tour de force: “As I did travel all on a journey / Over the wayside and under a dark moon / Hanging above a mountain.” Doesn’t that set the scene superbly? The album cover says the song is based on the story of “a magic drinking horn sent by Morgana to the court of King Arthur”. Notable again is Cox’s use of the glockenspiel and the intricate guitar and bass work. McShee continues: “I spied a young man riding a fine horse / Chasing a white hart and all through the woodland / There go the hunting and cries”. She journeys on till she notices a knight pursued by a lady, who asks him to deliver a magic horn which holds a substance that can determine true love. Jansch sings in response to the female protagonist. “The gift that you bear for your brother the king / I gladly would carry to the banquet this even’ / What fair sport this would be for the maidens at court”. And so continues a delightful medieval tale of a man who goes off to war and returns to find his wife has been unfaithful. Which is often the gist of most of these ancient songs, proving that lust and jealousy have been a part of mankind’s make-up since time immemorial?
While Wikipedia credits Phil Spector with composing Sally Go Round The Roses, the album cites Sanders/Stevens as the originators. When I thought about the song, I considered it a weak point on the album, but had to revise my opinion upon listening to it again. With bass and acoustic guitar clipping along, this Jaynettes song just gets better and better.
John Renbourn is credited on the album with arranging the traditional song, The Cuckoo, although the sleeve notes say it is “a folk song from Somerset which Jansch learnt from his neighbour’s children in Sussex”. Again, McShee is seductively superb: “Oh the cuckoo she’s a pretty bird she sings as she flies / She bringeth good tidings she telleth no lies …” With Cox again on glockenspiel and a guitar playing the melody, this is another classic which gives full reign to McShee’s magnificent talents.
The album closes with House Carpenter, an American Southern ballad based on an English folk song The Daemon Lover (in which the lover is the Devil personified). Again, like several others, it features Jansch on banjo and Renbourn on sitar. It is this sort of combination which sets the album apart. Jansch and McShee share the vocals, which I battled to hear when I gave it a recent listen, as Jansch does tend to muffle at times. But the internet has cleared things up: “Well I once could have married the king’s third son / And a fine young man was he / But now I’m married to a house carpenter / And a noisy old man is he.” The Jansch character responds: “(but) Will you forsake your house carpenter / And a go along with a me / I will take you to where the grass grows green / On the bank of the river deep”. She left her two babes and left, dressed in her finery. “She shivered and she shimmered and she proudly stepped …” Soon she missed her children. But it was too late. The ship sinks “far away from the shore” and, as she battles to stay afloat, she is racked with guilt. “Well I wish I was back to my house carpenter / I’m sure he would treat me well / But here I am in the raging sea / And my soul is bound for hell”. When McShee sings that last line it has the force, and timbre, of Joan Baez at her best, showing how versatile McShee was as a vocalist.
While this is a studio album, it’s cover for some reason features photographs of the band’s 1968 concert at the Royal Albert Hall. And they do reveal the sort of band it was. When I first saw them on YouTube, I was struck by the dynamic performance of stand-up double bass player Thompson, while Renbourn and Jansch were equally impressive on guitars. McShee wasn’t quite the English rose I had expected, but nevertheless had a fine-featured, patrician look, and on the cover of this album is shown seated, with a miniskirt so short it seems almost unbelievable that testosterone-charged youths were able to control their urges in those days.
Wikipedia observes that the cover states that all instruments on the album “are accoustic [sic]”. However, on my copy, from 1971, the word is spelt correctly, with one ‘c’.
So, by 1970, after the success of this album – which is by no means “commercial” in the derogatory sense – the band was enjoying some well-deserved popularity. They did a soundtrack for the film, Tam Lin, made a dozen television appearances, and toured the UK, including the Isle of Wight Festival, and the US, including a gig at Carnegie Hall.
Cruel Sister

But, says Wikipedia, their fourth album, Cruel Sister, released in October 1970, was a commercial disaster. For us, however, it was a gem. Packed with traditional songs, it included a 20-minute version of Jack Orion, which Jansch and Renbourn had recorded earlier as a duo. I think this album, which had a yellow backing to an orange and white Albrecht Durer engraving (a picture on the back, The Sea Monster, dates from 1498), floated around among a group of us, swopped and taped and generally loved. About 20 years later I picked up a compilation album, a tape called A Maid That’s Deep in Love, which features all the songs off the album apart from Jack Orion itself.
Before delving into these songs, let’s see what Wikipedia says about the album. Recorded in 1970, I agree with the view that under producer Bill Leader a more uncluttered folk sound was achieved. Also notable, having listened to those tracks, is the introduction of electric guitars, albeit very subtly.
A Maid That’s Deep In Love opens the album. However, what I took for a banjo is in fact an Appalachian dulcimer, played by Jansch. The story is about a young woman who follows her lover, a sea captain, by disguising herself as a man. “I am a maid that’s deep in love / But yes I can complain / I have in this world but one true love / And Jimmy is his name”. She vows to follow him “thro’ the lands of liberty”. How? By dressing like a male sailor in the best Shakespearian tradition. “Then ‘ll cut off my yellow hair / Men’s clothing I’ll wear on”. So she signs on “to a bold sea captain”. “One night upon the raging sea / As we were going to bed / The captain cried ‘Farewell my boy, / I wish you were a maid / Your rosy cheeks, your ruby lips / They are enticing me / And I wish dear God with all my heart / A maid you were to me”. Of course “he” rebuffs the captain saying “such talk is all in vain / And if the sailors find it out / They’ll laugh and make much game”. She/he adds that “when we reach Columbia shore / Some prettier girls you’ll find” and he’d court them “for courting you are inclined”. When they reach shore, she bids him adieu and confesses that “For once I was a sailor on sea / but now I am a maid on shore”. He’s smitten: “Come back, come back, my own pretty maid / Come back and marry me”, adding for good measure that “I have ten thousands pounds in gold / And that I’ll give to thee …” Imagine, at the height of the rock/hippie era, here we were listening raptly to traditional folk songs like this – and in my case couldn’t get enough of them. So catholic was our taste in music at the time. But of course old English folk songs played a key role in the oeuvre of so many English and even US groups that it isn’t surprising. Even the great Bob Dylan owes much to those ancient roots.
But if Jacqui McShee was impressive on that song, she was doubly so on the next, When I Was In My Prime, in which she sings all six verses unaccompanied. And with so much musical talent at her disposal it was a bold step not to harness their skills on this track. “When I was in my prime I flourished like a vine / There came along a false young man / Come stole the heart of mine / Come stole the heart of mine”. She then tells of the nearby gardener’s three offers – a pink, a violet and a red rose, and she refuses all three, saying “The pink’s no flower at all, for it fades away too soon / The violet is too pale a hue, I think I’ll wait till June …” But when in June the red rose blooms, she says it too is “not the flower for me”. Instead she’ll plant a willow tree. “And the willow tree shall weep, and the willow tree shall whine / I wish I was in the young man’s arms that won the heart of mine / that won the heart of mine”. Then she adds, poignantly: “If I’m spared for one year more, and god should grant me grace / I’ll weep a bowl of crystal tears to wash his deceitful face / To wash his deceitful face.” Poetic, beautiful lines sung in a crystal-clear voice which makes the tale all the more seductive.
My wife Robyn and I were in Waterford in Ireland in the summer of 1990 when we stopped into a pub, where a “session” was advertised for that evening. This is an informal gathering of traditional musicians playing the likes of guitars, fiddles and accordions. Also, some of those drinking at the pub and listening would join in by playing “the spoons”, a pair of spoons clacking together like castanets. One of the more memorable songs played that night was an unaccompanied rendering of Lord Franklin, which is the next track on Cruel Sister. It was incredible. I had by then forgotten that I first heard it done by Pentangle. Wikipedia tells us this traditional ballad, also known as Lady Franklin’s Lament, describes Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. It is John Renbourn who both sings the lead vocals and plays the acoustic guitar. And I agree with their description of his use of a “heavily overdriven, sustaining electric guitar … used as a melodic instrument, almost violin-like in its sound”. That is precisely what I thought as I listened to it. Bert Jansch plays concertina on the song, while another feature is Jacqui McShee’s high harmonies. Some of the greatest folk songs, be they English, Irish, Scottish, Canadian or American, are about dramas at sea. This is no exception. “It was homeward bound one night on the deep / Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep / I dreamed a dream and I thought it true / Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew.” As a landlubber from sunny South Africa, it is impossible to imagine what life was like for the crew of vulnerable sailing ships. “With one hundred seamen he sailed away / to the frozen ocean in the month of May / To seek a passage around the pole / Where we poor seamen do sometimes go”. In beautifully poetic lines, the song records how “their ship on mountains of ice was drove”, while “the Eskimo with his skin canoe / Was the only one that ever came through”. And so it is that “in Baffin’s Bay where the whale fish blow”, Lord Franklin along with his sailors “do dwell”. Bob Dylan’s Dream surely owes much to the last two lines: “Ten thousand pounds I would freely give / To say on earth that my Franklin do live”.
Then comes the title track, Cruel Sister, another McShee miracle, in which she holds the notes at the end of each verse tantalisingly, savouring the words. Another traditional ballad, it is also evidently known as The Twa Sisters, and tells of rivalry between two sisters for the love of a knight. Accompanied by acoustic guitar, the song contains words I am about to discover, in particular that bit in parentheses after each line. “There lived a lady by the North Sea shore / (Lay the bent to the bonnie broom) / Two daughters were the babes she bore / (Fa la la la la la la la la la)”. That’s how one website has it, but I wonder what it means. Anyway, in a story which in this country might elicit cries of racism, we discover that “as one grew bright as in the sun, / So coal black grew the elder one”. In the manner of such songs, a knight courts one (with gloves and rings), “But he loved the other above all things”. So the one sister invites her sibling to walk along the shore, where “the dark girl threw her sister o’er”, and then refuses to help her, even when she cries: “Oh Sister, Sister, let me live, / And all that’s mine I’ll surely give”. The dark sister replies: “It’s your own true love that I’ll have and more, / But thou shalt never come ashore”. Later, two minstrels find her body on the shore, and make a harp of her breast bone “whose sound would melt a heart of stone”. They used three locks of her yellow hair to string the harp, then took it to the sisters’ father’s hall. The harp began to play alone, with the first string singing that “the bride” – this must have been at the wedding - “her younger sister drowned”. As the other strings play, so the bride “in terror sits”, before her tears start to flow. It is a wonderful tale of supernatural justice.
I hope by reading the lyrics to jog my memory about Jack Orion, which at nearly 19 minutes takes up the whole of Side Two of the album. The first verse goes: “Jack Orion was as good a fiddler / As ever fiddled on a string / And he could make young women mad / With the tune his fiddle would sing”. While it rings no bells, I am sure I’m detecting that old English device, the double entendre. “He could fiddle the fish out of salt water / Or water from a marble stone / Or milk from out of a maiden’s breast / Though baby she’d got none.” Still no bells, yet I MUST have heard it. Wikipedia says the arrangement “develops through several sections with different rhythms and instrumentation: acoustic guitars, recorders, glockenspiel and electric guitar, together with some dramatic double bass playing by Danny Thompson”. Sounds like a Pentangle classic to me. And, after a few dozen verses, it transpires, three characters lie slain as love ends in tragedy.
Reflection

Probably because of Cruel Sister’s limited commercial success, on their next album, Reflection, from March 1971, they returned to a combination of traditional and original material. It evidently was greeted positively by the media, but, “without much enthusiasm”, says Wikipedia. I don’t recall this album, which had a blue border around multiple photographs on the cover. Happily, that compilation tape I found includes some of the key songs off the album, and most were indeed familiar. Wikipedia says the folk numbers on the album are “more Appalachian than British – in both the selection of songs and the arrangements, with notable use of banjos”. This is clear on the opening track, Wedding Dress, a traditional song which features both banjo and Thompson’s amazing bass played with a bow, not to mention those acoustic guitars. “Hey, my little lonely girl, don’t you guess / Better be making your wedding dress …”
Who on earth would know what Omie Wise was? I had no idea till I found the lyrics. Omie seems to be a girl’s name in what is another traditional song featuring some complex guitar playing and Jansch on lead vocals. It is vintage Jansch, that voice ideally suited to this sort of ballad: “Oh, listen to my story, I’ll tell you no lies, / How John Lewis did murder poor little Omie Wise. / He told her to meet him at Adams’s Springs / He promised her money and other fine things.” It is a bizarre tail of cold-blooded murder, as Omie “jumps up behind him” (onto his horse) and they head off. When she asks if intends to marry her, he replies: “Little Omie, little Omie, I’ll tell to you my mind. / My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.” After she pleads for her life, he hugs and kisses her – “Then pushed her in deep waters where he knew that she would drown.” Clearly, swimming was not a common skill in those days. Two little boys find her body, and Lewis is called to identify her. He is arrested. “He made no confession but they carried him to jail / No friends or relations would go on his bail.” Again, an ancient tale brought alive by modern musicians fascinated by their heritage.
The classic, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?, I remember more, probably, from the seminal bluegrass-based album of the same name by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but this version is also superb, with a strong bluesy feeling occasioned by some excellent harmonica. It starts with drums and guitars: “Will the circle be unbroken / By and by, oh Lord, by and by / There’s a better home awaiting / In the sky, Lord, in the sky.” Wikipedia informs us that a wah-wah pedal is employed on the electric guitar on this track, which again is used incredibly sparingly, again sounding more like a violin than a guitar. The next track, When I Get Home, was written by Jansch and is one of the finest on the album. Renbourn’s electric guitar gives it a wonderful jazz feeling, alongside some excellent Thompson bass and strummed acoustic guitar. The song is about a man getting drunk at a party, while his wife waits at home. In the next song, the shoe is on the other foot. Another traditional song, Rain And Snow showcases that interesting combination of banjo and sitar, alongside more superb bass, with McShee again providing the finest of vocals: “Well I married me a wife / She gave me trouble all my life / She ran me out in the cold rain and snow.” It’s a sad tale about husband-bashing. “I see yo sitting in the shade counting every dime I’ve made / I’m so broke and I’m hungry too / I’m so broke and I’m hungry too”. The next song, So Clear, I have not heard. It is described by Wikipedia as a “rare John Renbourn composition for the band”. Neither have I heard the title song, Reflection, described as “an atmospheric piece, beginning with triple-tracked bowed and plucked double bass and ending with an improvisational jazzy section”. At over 11 minutes, it sounds most interesting. While the album was being recorded, Wikipedia says the sessions were often affected by Jansch and Renbourn’s “state of sobriety”. But the album ended up of high quality, the only one by the band to make full use of a 16-track studio.
Solomon’s Seal

The cracks that started to appear with Reflection grew. After a row with Transatlantic that is of interest to very few, Pentangle formed their own music publishing company, Swiggeroux Music, in 1971. Their final album, Solomon’s Seal, was released by Warner Brothers/Reprise, in 1972. It apparently received critical acclaim, despite showing signs of the band’s weariness. I have not heard it, but it too must surely be of the highest quality. Sadly, on January 1, 1973, Jansch led the departure as the band split after six creative, if turbulent, years.
Of course, as with all the other great groups from the late 1960s, life had to go on after the bubble burst. Jansch and Renbourn pursued solo careers, McShee had a young family, Thompson did session work and Cox ran a restaurant in Minorca. They reunited in the early 1980s for a tour of Europe, starting at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1982. And then came the inevitable split, again, as Renbourn left to study classical music. New blood brought a series of three new albums in the 1980s and tours right through till 1995. In 2007, I read, The Time Has Come 1987-1973 was issued, a 4-CD set comprising rarities, out-takes and live performances. Also, in 2007, the five original members were reunited for a Lifetime Achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and to record a short concert that was broadcast on BBC radio.
McShee also ventured off on her own in the 1990s, her band eventually being called Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle. Her albums, which include guest stars like Ralph McTell and John Martyn, must surely also be well worth a listen. So too must the various compilation albums released from 1972 till 20001, one of which I picked up on that tape in London around 1990. Another gem must be the 1968-1972 Lost Broadcasts album, released in 2004, taken from numerous radio broadcasts the band did.
It is interesting to note that while Danny Thompson called their sound “folk-jazz”, Wikipedia quotes Renbourn as despising the “folk-rock” concept, saying: “one of the worst things you can do to a folk song is inflict a rock beat on it … Most of the old songs that I have heard have their own internal rhythm.” He said Terry Cox’s percussion patterns matched this rhythm exactly. “In that respect he was the opposite of a folk-rock drummer.” Ironically, it seems that by Cruel Sister, in 1970, the band had moved away from its unique synthesis of different elements, such as folk, jazz, blues and early music, and, by including electric instruments on traditional songs, had – Renbourn’s protestations notwithstanding – ended up closer to Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span’s folk-rock sound than they probably would have liked.
Their sound was clearly going to be overtaken by time and other musical developments, but for me it represents yet another of the great high points in the evolution of modern music. At the time of their receiving their Lifetime Achievement award in January, 2007, BBC Radio 2 producer John Leonard called the band “one of the most influential groups of the late 20th century”.

5 comments:

Dave said...

I found a fairly ratty LP of Solomon's Seal at a flea market a few months ago; but the record itself seems in good condition. You're welcome to it if you want; contact me at this address: spamless at gmail dot com

--Dave

*entangled* said...

You put a photograph of Django Reinhardt where I expected to see a picture of John Renbourn. A mistake, but anyway it could have been worse :)

Kin Bentley said...

Humble apologies for using the wrong image, namely that of Django Reinhardt. The mistake has been rectified. Thanks to 'entangled' for spotting the error. To be honest, I don't recall seeing pix of John Renbourn in my youth, or indeed even on the cover of a couple of audio tapes by him I bought while living in the UK in the early 1990s. Bert Jansch was the Pentangle member, and solo artist, who really flayed us with his guitar technique.

Kin Bentley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Holmes said...

Kin, thank you for pointing me to this blog. Brilliant! You precis each piece so well. I have a vinyl copy of Cruel Sister which I love, and a 4-track tape of "Jack Orion" which is marvellous. I'd love to see you do a piece on a masterpiece, "Brownsville Girl" by Bob Dylan. It weaves in and out from reality to abstract, and is an underrated gem. What do you think?

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