Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lucky Thirteen - Bert Jansch

Lucky Thirteen
Bert Jansch
Vanguard VSD 79212

I was sorry to read recently that the Scottish folk musician/singer Bert Jansch had passed away.  I first heard of him via Donovan mentioning him in a couple of songs on "Sunshine Superman" but it wasn't until I became obsessed with English folk-rock via my discovery of Fairport Convention that I started to listen to him.  I was a big fan of his group, Pentangle, and their first three records are still among my favorites.  Even though I followed his bandmate John Renbourn's post-Pentangle career quite closely, I unfortunately haven't heard much of Jansch's recent work.  I do have a couple of his albums from the 1960s though.  This was his American debut which was compiled from tracks from his first two English albums.  Unlike his work with Pentangle which featured a lot of traditional folk music, this album is contemporary folk with some folk-blues as well.  It kicks off with a cover of Davy Graham's classic instrumental "Angi" (listed here as "Angie.")  Jansch plays it with complete confidence and impressive dexterity.  It is one of six guitar instrumentals on the album.  I'm not a big fan of folk guitar instrumentals, my John Fahey records do not leave their sleeves much.  However I do enjoy the instrumentals on this album particularly "The Wheel," the frenetic "Lucky Thirteen" and the Middle Eastern flavored "Casbah."  Of the remaining songs with vocals, all are composed by Jansch aside from "Been on the Road So Long" by his fellow Scottish folkie Alex Campbell.  I prefer Campbell's version from "Alex Campbell and Friends", it is more melodic and features Sandy Denny singing along with him, but Jansch's guitar playing on his version is very striking.  Of Jansch's originals my favorite is "Needle of Death" which is about a heroin overdose.  It is a beautiful song that Yo La Tengo fans will be familiar with from their cover on their EP "Today is the Day."  I'm also impressed by the powerful anti-war song "I Have No Time."  I'm pretty sure he is referring to the Vietnam War although it is not mentioned by name.  "Running From Home," which is about a runaway girl, is also a very pretty song, Jansch had a gift for writing poetic and delicate lyrics.  There are exceptions of course.  I find "Ring a Ding Bird" to be tedious and a little inane.  I don't care much for the monotonous "Courting Blues" either, which is about a guy trying to talk his girlfriend into going to bed with him.  "Oh My Babe" is a litany of woe that could be trite, but is given strength from Jansch's performance.  Jansch's vocal style tends towards the low key and lugubrious, but his vocal on "Oh My Babe" is strong and passionate.  "Rambling's Gonna Be the Death of Me" is a folk-blues from the so-long-babe-I-gotta-ramble school but Jansch's ringing guitar and another strong vocal keep me interested.  This is a fine album with outstanding guitar playing.  Even if folk puts you to sleep, Jansch's fretwork should keep you listening.  Recommended to Richard Thompson fans who prefer hearing him unplugged.

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