This is the second installment of a massive archival re-release project of Scottish troubadour Bert Jansch’s latter-day studio recordings. This four-LP or -CD box collects Jansch’s three studio releases from the 2000s: Crimson Moon (2000), Edge of a Dream (2002) and The Black Swan (2006), plus a fourth disc of outtakes, demos and unreleased tracks. Released in mid-2017, it follows a set of 1990s releases called Living in the Shadows. Like that set, Part 2 is packed with musical riches – maybe a bit more so even, to my taste.
Bert Jansch was one of the major figures to emerge from the English folk movement of the 1960s, playing the club scene and releasing his self-titled debut in 1965. He was influenced by American blues players and incorporated blues into his playing and singing, but developed his own unique style in both. He also played traditional English folk songs and wrote his own in the style of both blues and British folk, and, well, bluesy British folk. In addition to his solo playing, he was a member of the folk-jazz fusion ensemble Pentangle, and played and recorded with Pentangle members as well as many others over the years. One of his final tours was in the U.S. with Neil Young, who considered his guitar playing a primary influence.
Crimson Moon is a pretty stripped-down affair, with just a few core musicians including Johnny Marr and Johnny “Guitar” Hodge, both on guitar and harmonica, filling in on a largely acoustic affair. It’s a mix of solid originals and covers plus one trad workhorse, the venerable “Omie Wise.” It opens with the rousing Scottish independence anthem “Caledonia” and wraps with a homey cover of a staple from the folk revival, the 1950s folk-blues hit by Guy Mitchell “Singing The Blues.”
Much of the album has a domestic feel to it, with laid-back gems like “Going Home” and the title song “Crimson Moon,” the wonderfully melodic and catchy “The River Bank” and even the deeply bluesy “Looking For Love.” In a similar vein is the gentle “October Song,” a cover of Robin Williamson’s The Incredible String Band song to which Jansch adds some of his signature cascading riffs that seem to play with the song’s pace and time signature.
All that said, though, the hefty centerpiece here is the fully fleshed-out arrangement of Jansch’s symbolic portrait of Medieval warfare “Fool’s Mate.” (It appeared as a guitar-only demo on Part 1.) This dark song is rendered even more crepuscular by the reverb-laden electric acoustic Jansch plays and some subtle, deft touches of other guitars, bass and percussion. Told in language that blends chess imagery of bishops and queens with flesh-and-blood reality of horses and pikes, it’s heightened further by the gallows humor of the coda, a jig sung by the titular character who comes to caper and jape in the wake of the battle. We’re never told who exactly wins the battle, but as the Fool’s Mate makes clear, in war nobody wins.
Jansch’s daughter Loren sings lead on the traditional-sounding “My Donald” and his son Adam plays bass on a couple of tracks, and both also appear on dad’s next release, 2002’s Edge of a Dream. Loren has a soft and naive-sounding style that is a good match for her song on this album, which is more or less a cover of Sandy Denny’s cover of Richard Fariña’s “The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood.” Hope Sandoval also guests, singing lead on a song the two co-wrote, “All This Remains.”
This album has plenty of sonic variety, swinging from the full-on folk-rock of the title song and a couple of shuffling blues numbers, “What Is On Your Mind” and “Walking This Road,” to gentle solo gems like “Sweet Death,” a love song to the personification of the end of life and suffering. “Oh too long I have suffered to carry on another day,” Jansch sings on the final verse, followed by a beautiful duet on the outro with the inimitable Dave Swarbrick on fiddle. Swarb also plays a duet with Jansch on the jaunty instrumental “Gypsy Dave.”
Jansch is accompanied by Paul Wassif on sweet slide guitar on another instrumental, “Black Cat Blues,” and Johnny “Guitar” Hodge plays a haunting Spanish guitar on his own composition, the mysterious “La Luna.” The album wraps with Jansch playing the true role of troubadour, telling the story of a historic event, a song of the events of September 11, 2001, called “Bright Sunny Morning.” It’s the only song about that day that I’ve ever liked, a straightforward narration of the events and their effects on the witnesses and the world, with no rhetoric or overblown sentiment.
Jansch’s final studio album The Black Swan was, fittingly, something of a tribute by the younger generation of folk musicians from both sides of the Atlantic. Half of the dozen tracks feature guest appearances by the likes of English chanteuse Beth Orton (who sings on three very different songs) in addition to American denizens of what’s known as freak-folk including cellist Helena Espvall, singer Devendra Banhart and guitarist Kevin Barker. As with most of Jansch’s albums throughout his career, this one is a mix of originals and traditionals, American blues and British folk.
It opens with the haunting title song, which is further haunted by Espvall’s cello. It winds up with Jansch solo on “Hey Pretty Girl,” which sounds like nothing so much as a great lost Pentangle song, a paean to the rock and roll lifestyle, its highs and lows. Some of the highs of the rest of the album feature Orton’s casually stunning performances: on Jansch’s bluesy rocker “When The Sun Comes Up”; the folk blues of the traditional “Watch The Stars” a duet with Jansch accompanied by Jansch and Barker on guitars; and the chilling duet with Banhart on the traditional “Katie Cruel.”
Away from the duets with the younger musicians, though, Jansch shines brightly on the likes of Brendan Behan’s Irish prison song “The Old Triangle,” and a couple of protest songs, “Bring Your Religion” and “Texas Cowboy Blues.” The latter of course inspired by America’s second President Bush, upon which he lays his satiric scorn. The high point for me, though, is the second track, “High Days,” a song that seems to be an examination of a long-term relationship, from its idyllic beginnings to its current state of weary standoff. It’s full of imagery and references and shifts of tone that beg repeated listens and offer no easy answers, like life itself.
The final disc of demos and outtakes contains some real gems. In particular, I love the solo, voice-and-guitar versions of “The Edge Of A Dream” and “Fool’s Mate,” and a couple of instrumental guitar duets, “Cocaine” with Johnny Marr and “Chambertin” with Gordon Giltrap.
Altogether, On the Edge of a Dream – alone or together with its companion set Living in the Shadows – is a fine tribute to Bert Jansch. There’s so much deeply compelling music here, a reminder of what a towering presence Jansch was. Not just in the early years of the folk movement when everybody was paying attention, but throughout and right up to the end of his time with us. If you, like me, weren’t keeping up with Jansch in the ’90s and Naughts, here’s your chance to catch up. You’ll be glad you did.