Bert Jansch’s Living in the Shadows (Part 1)

cover artBert Jansch, who died in 2011, was quite a prolific musician for quite a long time. I was a rather casual fan of his — well, actually I was an intense fan of one of his albums, and a casual fan of the rest of his career, both with Pentangle and solo. That album of his that so captured my heart was Moonshine from 1973, one of just a couple that he released on major labels in the U.S. But he started recording in 1965 and continued releasing live and studio recordings until the mid-2000s. He was a groundbreaking and influential acoustic guitar player, fingerpicking with fluidity that was muscular but nuanced, and is perhaps best remembered for his stint in Pentangle, paired with the equally adept and influential John Renbourne. And he also had a distinctive voice and vocal style, his nasal tenor and thick Scottish brogue immediately recognizable.

As with so many musicians of his generation, Jansch was probably better known for his early work. I know that’s certainly the case with me. But it turns out that he continued to turn out beautiful music throughout his career.

In case you missed his later releases as I did, you can now cast your regrets (and a hefty chunk of cash no doubt) to the wind. England’s deluxe reissue label Earth has released two four-CD or -LP box sets featuring Bert Jansch’s albums from the 1990s and 2000s. Living in the Shadows (Part 1) is the ’90s set. It contains Jansch’s three studio albums from the period — The Ornament Tree (1990), When the Circus Comes to Town (1995), and Toy Balloon (1998) — plus a fourth disc of outtakes, alternate takes, demos and unreleased tracks.

The Ornament Tree is almost totally given over to traditional songs, which was as far as I know a rarity among Jansch’s albums. It’s named for its opening track, an elegiac song otherwise known as “Bonny Portmore,” the lament for a port town destroyed by war. It’s a bare-bones rendition, just Jansch and his guitar, with perhaps some accompaniment by Peter Kirtley on a second guitar. The rest of the album features a mix of solo tracks like “The Mountain Streams” as well as songs that have a variety of other musicians on a range of instruments including flutes and whistles, fiddles, accordion and such. Some of the finer examples of these are “The Banks O’Sicily” and “Tramps And Hawkers.”

Jansch does some fine guitar playing throughout, and it and the other instruments come through plainly. But for some reason the album was recorded with a lot of reverb on the vocals, so it sounds as though he was singing alone in the middle of a big gymnasium or hockey rink. Most of the vocal nuancess are just lost in the echo, which is a shame. There’s a remake of my favorite song off Moonshine, Dave Goulder’s poignant “The January Man” which has some lovely phrasing but any subtlety is lost in the reverb. In the end, the most memorable tracks are the two instrumentals “The Rocky Road to Dublin” and “Lady Fair.”

Things get back on track with When the Circus Comes to Town, which is all Jansch originals save one cover song. The mood is somber for the most part, with dark and bluesy songs like “Walk Quietly By,” “Open Road,” “Born With The Blues,” and the lone cover song, “No-One Around,” by folksinger Janie Romer. “Summer Heat” is suitably swampy with rippling soprano sax fills, “When The Circus Comes To Town” isn’t as dark as many songs on the topic. Jansch gets a bit sentimental on “Back Home,” paints a beautiful picture of domestic haven on “Morning Brings Peace Of Mind” gets patriotic on “Step Back,” but ends the album on a dark note with the bitter anti-war song that gives the set its title, “Living In The Shadows,” set during the 1992 seige of Sarajevo.

There’s plenty of chance to hear Jansch’s combination of fingerpicking and clawhammer style guitar playing, plus some of his signature way of toying with the time signature, on the likes of “Walk Quietly By” and the demo version of “Circus.”

Sonically things improve even more on 1998’s Toy Balloon, which again is all originals with one trad song, the classic “She Moved Through the Fair.” The bulk the 11 tracks feature just Jansch, from the deep blues “Hey Doc” to the pensive opener “Carnival.” But when he does call on backing musicians, look out. This band cooks on numbers like the rocking blues “All I Got” with deep funk bass from Marcus Cliffe and harmonica by Johnny Hodge. Hodge plays smoking slide guitar on the equally funky “Sweet Talking Lady” joined by Pee Wee Ellis on sax.

On the other end of the spectrum from those fully arranged rockers are the gentle folk of “Toy Balloon” with spare touches of pedal steel, the lilting Celtic instrumental “Bett’s Dance” and the gentle closer “Just A Simple Soul.”

The fourth disc, called Picking up the Leaves interestingly has the album version of “When The Circus Comes To Town, although most of the rest of the 14 tracks are demos, outtakes and unreleased songs and tunes.

The version of “No-One Around” here is chillling, and the song “Just A Dream” reminds me thematically of a much earlier Jansch song “Nighttime Blues.” Of most interest may be some instrumentals, including a demo of what would turn into one of the most dramatic songs in Jansch’s entire catalog, “Fool’s Mate,” which would show up as an epic tale of war on Crimson Moon in 2000. The disc (and set) ends with two takes of an untitled instrumental with John Renbourn – what a treat to hear the two of them woodshedding this tune!

So Living in the Shadows (Part 1) is a mixed affair due to the frustrating production on the first of the four albums, but it ends on a strong note and contains much more good than bad.

(Earth, 2017)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.