By my recollection it was The Pentangle when they started. And then they lost the definitive article and were just Pentangle. Whatever they called themselves, they were like fish out of water at the time. My friends didn’t listen to them at all. We were all more into The Who, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix. The loud stuff. The flashy stuff. But now, years later, I find myself listening to this mix of jazz, folk, blues, and traditional music far more than I listen to those other bands. Maybe it’s marked by my development as a guitar player. I could slam power chords out back in the ’60s and ’70s, but now I go for the more acoustic sounds, myself. I have seen John Renbourn live, and learned from him. I have read Bert Jansch’s biography and GMR has reviewed his solo CDs and tributes. Danny Thompson is a local favourite for his work with Richard Thompson, Donovan, June Tabor and Darrell Scott. And Jacqui McShee has appeared in our pages in a variety of contexts. A Pentangle, and The Pentangle has five sides! The drummer was Terry Cox.
This box set (actually, it’s more like a book) contains four discs. I would have argued for a fifth, just to keep the ‘pentangling’ theme going. Maybe a DVD! But the four CDs are chock full of wondrous music. Wondrous, but virtually impossible to categorize. And that’s why they never had the audience that many louder, often less gifted, bands had. Here, in this set, the time has come for reassessment, and for appreciation.
“People are always asking us if we’re pop or folk or jazz. We’d say ‘Well look, it’s music — it’s whatever you think it is.’ In America [they looked at us as] British music…they seemed particularly pleased about the acoustic idea. They seemed to think we’re bringing it back from the 14th century.” — Danny Thompson
They began as a guitar duo, with Renbourn and Jansch recording in Bert’s living room, playing Mingus and early British folk tunes. They added the folky female voice of Jacqui McShee, and the jazz influence of bassist Thompson and percussionist Cox. And then there were five. The first album, called The Pentangle, arrived in ’68 and is represented by only two cuts, “Mirage” and “Waltz” both of which are credited to all five of them. Both tunes are improvised around a basic chord structure and feature some free blowing on guitars. McShee sings the lyric to “Mirage” but it all sounds pretty free. But…is it pop, folk, jazz? A bit of everything, really. Taken in tandem with the recent DVD Improvisation you could really see what improvisation is all about!
Even when doing traditional songs, Pentangle had a looseness about them that allowed for open-ended jams and raw harmonies. Think an acoustic Grateful Dead, with The Band singing. The first disc includes tracks from singles, from a couple of solo albums, and from the albums Sweet Child and Basket of Light…along with some tunes done for the BBC.
“We did get a number of gigs eventually like Newport that really were the right format for the type of music we were playing — a fairly quiet, amplified but nevertheless integrated kind of counterpoint…we used to have to follow different bands — all of whom were really heavy and very loud…then our band was an absurd contrast.” — John Reborn
Disc two represents studio recordings from ’70-73 (the albums Cruel Sister, Reflection, Solomon’s Seal and The Lost Sessions) as well as Renbourn’s solo Faro Annie and Jansch’s Moonshine wherein the band provided support. “Reflection” is provided in a previously unreleased rendition which features music that was removed from the official version. There is much meditative, repetitive guitar riffing (even noodling) over which solos weave themselves in and through. I hear an electric guitar on “Jack Orion” as Jansch experimented with more sustain. And then the very next track, “Cruel Sister,” reverts to traditional ballad with Jansch and Renbourn’s fingerstyle guitar and McShee’s crystalline vocals.
The counterpoint, the looseness, the invention and the juxtaposition of five points of the star were the essence of Pentangle. But the members’ very virtuosity and pursuit of purpose made it hard to sustain the group. In the booklet that accompanies the set are reproduced set lists which originally appeared in the printed programmes of their gigs. The carefully typed lists announce “The Programme Will Be Chosen From The Following” and then nearly four dozen song titles which credit not the writers but the performers! So in a Pentangle show (as on this set) you get tunes performed by The Pentangle; Danny; Terry, Bert, John, Danny; Bert; Terry & John and so on. Were they a band or a collection of soloists? They were both.
“We’re still breaking up on stage — with some numbers just featuring Bert and John, others with percussion, and so on — but we always finish with a free-form freak out number to let off steam. We work on a system of cues. We hope no one notices but we each improvise until the cue is given, then we all return to the worked out passages until the next cue. The thing about this is that you have to be ready for the next cue because if you miss it, there’s an almighty cock-up.” — Terry Cox
In the studio it’s not as hard to avoid the “almighty cock-up” but on stage..that’s where the challenges lie! They played across the USA following heavy bands like Canned Heat and Spirit, they followed Hendrix at the Isle of Wight. To prepare the audience for their arrival at the Fillmore, Bill Graham played some recorded symphonic jazz to settle the audience’s ears before introducing them. The third disc presents 19 live tracks from a gig at the Royal Festival Hall, June 29, 1968. This is a crisply recorded show, which presents them in a comforatble setting and shows them at their best. It’s mostly early material, because it was recorded early in their time together. Twelve of the tracks appeared as the second disc of their second album Sweet Child. The tracks were remastered in 2001 and the other seven tracks added to create the long concert we have before us. Three other tracks performed that night have not survived.
“I don’t remember us playing [the Isle of Wight Festival] at all. I just remember watching Jimi Hendrix nothing else — being under the stage, actually, to listen to him. Most exciting part of the whole proceedings for me. But I do remember being on-stage with Pentangle and various things happening.” — Bert Jansch
He doesn’t remember the music…but he does remember “various things happening”! And to these ears, thats’ what Pentangle was all about…things happening. Guitars, bass, drums working together, against each other, veering off in one direction only to come back and give the next “cue” for someone else to take a journey. As exciting as listening to Hendrix, even. Just quieter.
The final disc is music for films, television and some live tracks. It begins with a live, nearly 20-minute version of “Pentangling” (the ‘free form freak out’ Cox mentions in his quote), this time from the Abderdeen Music Hall, March 1970. The five corners of the pentangle are equally represented, and everyone sounds great. This is followed by a version of Phil Spector’s “Sally go Round the Roses” and J.S. Bach’s “Sarabande.” Whatever they did…they managed to “pentangle” it!
“We’re not the kind of band that value some kind of status and think of the financial aspect all the time. It’s more important that we feel right — so we just decided at one time to have a rest.” — Jacqui McShee
They split in 1973, reforming for one album in 1983. The members continued working together in other forms almost to the present. Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle has woodwinds, keyboards and various guests to play the guitars. Renbourn and Jansch have recent CDs out. Danny Thompson is unquestionably one of the finest bassists around, still backing anyone with taste. And Terry Cox has played with everyone from Cleo Laine to Elton John, David Bowie to Scott Walker. But when the five of them joined together they created a sound unlike anything else out there. The Time Has Come for everyone to hear them. This four-disc set is the perfect introduction.