Bert Jansch - Living In The Shadows album review

Celebrating the Pentangle guitarist’s 90s renaissance

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The ripples emanating from Bert Jansch’s 1965 self-titled debut and 1966’s Jack Orion were felt far and wide in time and space by people like Paul Simon, Johnny Marr, Donovan, Jimmy Page, Neil Young and countless others. With a wearied, laconic delivery, Jansch’s unfussy yet brilliant, articulate approach to the guitar, while rooted in tradition, came with its own distinctive dialect. A key figure in the 1960s folk revival, he went from playing for the price of a pint on a borrowed guitar to treading the international concert stage with Pentangle, earning him further legions of followers and wannabes.

That swift trajectory nearly always comes with a price tag. Jansch pondered on the fame game and its attendant pressures in 1970. “I’d rather prop up a bar somewhere with nobody knowing who the hell I was. I like my beer and
I don’t like people staring and pointing their finger at me at me when I just want to enjoy myself and be an ordinary human being. I’m just an ordinary, average guy… I watch Tomorrow’s World and Doctor Who.”

His increasing reliance on alcohol during the 1980s had dulled his talents so much so that when he returned, now thankfully clear of the booze with 1990’s The Ornament Tree, it was rightly hailed as a true return to form. Now handsomely repackaged along with When The Circus Comes To Town (1995), and Toy Balloon (1998), this formidable trio is accompanied by a full disc of previously unreleased material. With authoritative notes by Jansch biographer Colin Harper, the music is rendered into a beautiful artifact and fitting tribute. So often across these tracks he captures the bleak essence of a longing made harder to bear by the ache of emotion and distance.

Jansch, who died in 2011, lived long enough to see his stock rise, fall and rise again. That cycle of quiet triumph in the face of adversity is reflected in his unerring capacity to bring new perspectives to even the most well-worn folk repertoire, making them lodge in the head and heart afresh.

Billed as the definitive collection of the 90s Jansch era, the real prize for true fans will be the fourth disc of unheard demos and alternative readings. Sourced from the guitarist’s own cache of tapes, the intimacy and patient application between idea and fretboard are unveiled. Perhaps the most poignant moment comes from the pair of tracks with John Renbourn capturing their comments between takes. To be in earshot of such a musical presence so vibrant and uplifting remains a privilege.