Bert Jansch Links:
British folk music legend Bert Jansch has never been your typical folk figure. Jansch's nasally-sly voice snakes, moans, mumbles, often side-stepping to minor keys. His acoustic guitar playing isn't strummed, chorded or overtly mellifluous. Jansch pops the strings heavily and then trails off down some jazz-come-folk pathway, only to come bending and popping back, rarely playing the same line twice. His style has often been called "folk baroque," but this description is more quotable than apt. Jansch is far too subtle and eclectic for that. In short, both Jansch's singing and guitar playing are difficult to categorize and damn near impossible to imitate. For over thirty-five years, Bert Jansch has plied his perplexing art both as a solo artist and with others (dueting with John Renbourn and "grouping" with Pentangle).
Which brings us to this 2-CD, 26-song "encomium" (means "tribute" or "praise") lovingly compiled by British folkies Peter Muir and Colin Harper and sung by various (mostly UK) artists. Can songs so personally stylized and so endemic to their creator be effectively performed by others? Well, the answer is yes if the right "others" are chosen.
If the affair is a "night of a dozen stars" such as Sting, Phil Collins, Elton John, et al, it doesn't work. If it's "unknown punkers trash lovely, well-known tunes," it doesn't work. However, should the producers be so savvy as to enlist singers who either know the artist-in-tribute or are kindred spirits to said artist, then you have something worthwhile. I'm glad to report that such is the case on this "Encomium."
Disc One begins with one of the rare American contributors to the set, Boston folkie Chris Smither, and his capable version of "Strolling Down the Highway" [link to RealAudio sample from the Market Square site] from Bert's first, self-titled LP in 1965. Smither's guitar technique employs Jansch's odd fingerstyle combination of folk and blues. His vocal is properly expressive and off-meter, a-la Jansch. Smither becomes the first contestant in the "sounds the most like Bert" contest.
Long-time British folker Ralph "Streets of London" McTell is in admirable Jansch form on "Running From Home." McTell's voice has always been a bit Bert-like, though he plays with the melody less. His quiet reading of this tale of leaving is a tranquil, heartfelt delight. McTell becomes the second contestant in the "sounds the most like Bert" contest.
Rod Clements, ex of Lindisfarne, plays some notably tasty dobro licks on "Rambling's Gonna Be the Death of Me" (again from Jansch's 1965 debut album). His husky voice becomes contestant three in the "sounds the most like Bert" contest. Roy "Another Cricketeer Leaves the Crease" Harper sounds nothing like Bert, but his wavery, heartfelt vocal effectively conveys Jansch's classic drug lament "Needle of Death."
OK, back to the "sounds the most like Bert" contest. Steve Ashley fronts an odd, compelling, cello-heavy arrangement of "It Don't Bother Me." Close your eyes and you'd swear it's Bert. Contestant number four here. There is something about male British folksingers--so many of them have that resonant, nasal delivery that so few American singers possess. And, speaking of resonant, nasal delivery, Al "Year of the Cat" Stewart covers "Soho" to great effect, with ex-Wings guitar man Laurence Juber abetting on string-bending acoustic.
American Kelly Joe Phelps' version of "Blackwater Slide" (a traditional song from Bert's Jack Orion album) is jazzy and whispering, more like John Martyn than Jansch. Nonetheless, young Mr. Phelps proves himself an agile singer and player. A real up-and-comer, this boy.
Ex-Smith co-leader Johnny Marr, who lately has been accompanying Jansch on tour, filters "A Woman Like You" through echo-y '80s Brit pop. Jansch's composition survives the transition in fairly fine form. A bit U2-ish, however.
Two real finds on this set come from two influential, but little-known early British folk influences. Duffy Power is a semi-legendary, reclusive Brit-folk icon who played harmonica on Bert's 1969 Birthday Blues album. His stark, recorded-at-home take of "I Am Lonely" is a joy. His whiskey-smooth voice and relaxed guitar lines carry the song away on a dream. The other legendary find is Wizz Jones, Bert's mentor in the early 1960s. His simple, minstrel interpretation of "Fresh As a Sweet Sunday Morning," is peaceful yet potent. Aided by Simeon Jones on flute, Wizz displays how pretty a melody Jansch can write when he tries.
"The ladies" don't make their presence known until Disc Two. Maggie Boyle, who the liner notes claim is Jansch's favorite female singer, sings "Bird Song" (from Rosemary Lane) in a traditional, English, chant-like vocal style. Steve Anstee on cello plays the melody as Boyle sings it, creating a vocal/cello duet. More proof that Jansch can write achingly beautiful melodies.
The Legends of Tomorrow, with Janet Holmes on lead vocal, and with co-compiler Colin Harper on guitar, turn in a wonderful imitation of Jansch in his Pentangle years. The song they choose is the "title" track of this tribute, "People on the Highway." When writing for Pentangle, Bert's tunes had a much higher "sing-a-long" quotient. Polly Bolton provides another take of "Blackwater Side." The rendition is heavy on violins and synth, but still manages to inspire, thanks largely to Bolton's gorgeous, powerful vocal. Her voice, similar to Delores Keane's, is a mellifluous wail, possessing both strength and nuance.
Which brings us, finally, to the winner of the "sounds the most like Bert" contest. Martin Jenkins, who toured and recorded with Jansch for 6 years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, executes "Sweet Mother Earth" with dead-on Bert aplomb and pluck. His voice is so much like Bert's, one suspects a ringer (Bert himself). Granted, his guitar playing is tinkly next to Jansch's heavy-thumbed technique, but that voice has to be Bert.
It is indeed a happy occasion when a tribute album to a most deserving musical icon turns out to be worthy of said icon. People on the Highway: A Bert Jansch Encomium is such a tribute.Steve Cooper