Pentangle will always be an autumnal group for me. Probably because I first heard them when I visited the University of Oregon in the fall of my senior year of high school. And also maybe because I bought my first Bert Jansch album the following fall, after I arrived at school as a freshman. (That was in the fall of 1973, about the time the original group was calling it quits.) And now, listening to this superb new double-CD live album from their last tour together, in 2008, in the early autumn many decades hence, Danny Thompson’s double bass and the twin acoustic guitars of Jansch and John Renbourne still evoke for me a dark, cool, misty fall evening in some warmly lit English pub.
In case you just wandered in from some other world, Pentangle was a one-of-a-kind English supergroup, five musicians come together in the heady days of the late 1960s when the rule book had been thrown out and all kinds of experimentation were welcome and expected. Even so, they were something unexpected, a folk-jazz hybrid that played ancient folk songs of the British Isles in a new way that drew on jazz, blues and the emerging psychedelic rock.
They had only one Top 10 album, 1969’s Basket of Light, and only lasted a few years in their original configuration: guitarists Renbourne and Jansch, singer Jacqui McShee, renowned bassist Thompson and drummer/percussionist Terry Cox. The band went on in one form or another while Jansch, Renbourne and Thompson continued the influential careers they’d had before the group formed. In 2007 the original band received a BBC Radio 2 Lifetime Achievement Award and they played a couple of songs together at the awards show, for the first time since breaking up after their last tour in 1973.
On the heels of that acclaim and the critical success of the box set The Time Has Come, released the same year, on June 29, 2008, exactly 40 years since the recording of their monumental live album Sweet Child at the Royal Festival Hall, Pentangle returned to the same venue to begin their first British tour since 1973.
Finale: An Evening With Pentangle draws on the performances from that tour. And what performances they are! Excellent musicians in the ’60s, they seem at the height of their powers on these recordings. It helps that the recordings themselves are beautifully done, but McShee doesn’t sound a day older than 21, the guitarists are absolutely amazing, and the rhythm section is supple and inventive. Only Jansch, who had heart surgery in the early 2000s, sounds a bit ragged when he sings, but far from detracting from the performances, it actually enhances them with a bit of folky roughening.
Unfortunately, Jansch, who supervised the album’s mixing and sequencing, and Renbourne, who prepared the album masters, both passed before its release, Jansch in 2011 and Renbourne in 2015.
The performances on the album draw from all of the original quintet’s releases: The Pentangle and Sweet Child (1968), Basket of Light (1969), Cruel Sister (1970), Reflection (1971) and Solomon’s Seal (1972). And in addition to the type of songs that are thought of as their mainstay – English folk songs in a folk-jazz setting – there’s some a bit of actual jazz in Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” the American country standard “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and the bluesy gospel standard “No More My Lord.” And of course “I’ve Got A Feeling,” a song credited to all five band members, who wrote it to the tune of Miles Davis’s “All Blues” from his landmark 1959 album Kind of Blue. (Davis also gets credit for the song.)
Now I know what I’m going to be listening to as 2016 winds down toward the winter solstice and the turning of the year; this stunning live album and last testament from the wonderfully autumnal, inimitable Pentangle.
Here’s a sample from the album, the complexly metered “Light Flight” originally the opening track on Basket of Light.