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Album review: Bert Jansch “Moonshine”

October 5, 2015

Bert Jansch’s eighth studio album is re-issued by Earth Recordings, an overlooked gem from 1973 on which he is joined by an all-star cast including Danny Thompson, Tony Visconti, Mary Hopkin, Dave Mattacks, Ali Bain and more.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Bert Jansch - Moonshine coverFor almost his entire adult life, it seems that Bert Jansch rarely, if ever, paused in his music making. His legacy is immense with some thirty solo albums to his name, plus numerous collaborations with the likes of John Renbourn, Pentangle and various others and the records considered by many to be his finest have rarely, if ever, been out of print. However, the focus on certain of his albums – such as his early recordings for Transatlantic – has meant that other, less well-known albums have often slipped beneath the radar of the public’s consciousness. So it’s to the credit of Earth Recordings that, in their programme of Bert Jansch reissues, they’ve chosen to start with some of the releases which have been overlooked. The label got off to a flying start earlier this year with its reissue of 1996’s “authorised bootleg”, Live At The 12 Bar and are now following that with Moonshine.

Recorded in May 1972 with a stellar group of contributing musicians alongside a core quartet comprising bassist Danny Thompson (at the time, still a member of Pentangle), drummer Laurie Allen (Gong, Delivery), guitarist Gary Boyle (Brian Auger & the Trinity, Eclection) and multi-instrumentalist/producer Tony Visconti, the album was released on Reprise Records in February 1973, barely a month after Bert had formally announced his decision to leave Pentangle.

Quite what happened after this would seem to be anybody’s guess; certainly all my usual online research sources have little else to say about it. I’ve no doubt that fans of the UK folk revival scene bought it but, by 1973, the attention of the ever-fickle wider public was gripped by the joys of glam-rock, with Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster’ topping the UK Singles Chart for the whole of February while Cliff Richard’s ‘Power To All Our Friends’ had just finished third in the Eurovision Song Contest. Away from the more commercial side of the music biz, Led Zeppelin had just completed what would turn out to be their longest ever UK tour ahead of Houses Of The Holy hitting the shops in March and, of course, the behemoth that was Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon was about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Elsewhere in the UK, the Provisional IRA exploded bombs in London; unemployment was still sky-high – and don’t even start me on world events in 1973, from the unfolding Watergate scandal to the impending oil crisis.

In this context of general gloom, despondency and debatable fashion choices (to quote the immortal words of Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter, “Did you see the suits and the platform boots?”), it’s really no surprise that Bert and his wife Heather retreated to their farm in Wales and Moonshine quietly disappeared into obscurity. Since then, the album appears to have seen only two major reissues, once in 1995 (Jansch Records) and again in 2001 (Castle Music), so its reappearance now on Earth Recordings is as welcome as it is overdue.

The album opens with what, for me, is one of its highlights, ‘Yarrow’, Bert’s downbeat, midtempo arrangement of ‘The Braes o’ Yarrow’ (Child 214), setting the mood and sounding like an outtake from a Pentangle session; indeed, the re-formed Pentangle went on to record their own take on it for 1985’s Open The Door. On first listen, it almost epitomises the contemporary Brit-folk sound of the early 1970s with Bert’s effortlessly complex fingerstyle guitar over a jazzy rhythm section and a delicate woodwind arrangement by Les Quatre Flûte à Bec Consort.

The traditional ‘Brought With The Rain’ features a gently rolling guitar and double bass to create a proto-Americana vibe, over which Ralph McTell adds some tasty blues-inflected harmonica. Dave Goulder’s ‘The January Man’ has been covered by many other well-respected artists – for example, Martin Carthy, Christy Moore, Rachel Unthank & The Winterset and more recently Karine Polwart & Lau – but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone quite capture the bleakness of winter as well as Bert does on this version. His playing feels as muted as the leaden skies of the season while Skaila Kanga’s harp paints vivid sound pictures of swirling snow.

The mood and the tempo lift for ‘Night Time Blues’, the first of two songs penned by Bert. It’s a laidback affair, with Bert’s vocal drawl redolent of warm Mississippi nights; his percussive playing meshing with (I think) Dave Mattacks’ drums to create a sound like the rattling of a distant freight train, topped off with some fine Bluegrass fiddle by Aly Bain. The second self-composed piece is the title track, ‘Moonshine’, where the emphasis is less on the rhythmic side and more on the melodic. Bert’s playing has an almost medieval quality about it, at times reminiscent of John Renbourn, enhanced by the modal arrangement provided by Les Quatre Flûte à Bec Consort and some well-placed chimes (Tony Visconti?). Aly’s fiddle and Marilyn Sanson’s cello weave around Danny’s discreetly sonorous bass to climb like ivy on an ancient stone wall; if this isn’t the perfect music for sallying forth on pointlessly romantic, chivalrous quests and slaying dragons and suchlike, then I don’t know what is!

It’s hard to know what there is left to say about ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ that hasn’t already been said: written in 1957 by Ewan MacColl for Peggy Seeger, possibly one of the best ever love songs and certainly one of the most covered by folk (and other) artists. Bert himself recorded an instrumental version on Jack Orion (1966) but this version blows pretty much every other take on it that I’ve heard completely out of the water. Instrumentally it’s a lazy midtempo shuffle kept moving by the fizzing drums of Dannie Richmond (Charles Mingus) and Danny’s restless bass, with Richard Adeney’s flute low in the mix and a warm fiddle solo by Aly through the coda, but it’s the vocals that make you stop what you’re doing and just listen. Bert completely rewrote the melody as a two-part round for him and Mary Hopkin and it’s the interaction between the duo’s voices, their very different styles of singing, that really makes this version the absolute highlight of the album.

I’m familiar with the ballad ‘Rambleaway’ (Roud 171) from the versions by Shirley and Dolly Collins (Anthems in Eden, 1969) and Waterson:Carthy (Common Tongue, 1996) and, while they are as the proverbial chalk and cheese, yet both eminently listenable each in their own way, Bert’s reworking brings its own qualities to the table. It’s very much in the early 1970s folk-rock milieu, not least because of Gary Boyle’s electric guitar, although Danny’s resolute bass and Laurie’s minimalist drums allow Aly’s fiddle plenty of space as Bert gives a relatively unadorned performance which suits the song to the ground.

I’ve seen the much-covered ‘Twa Corbies’ (Child 26) referred to as “one of the grimmest of all our ballads” and although its subject matter is certainly gory – two ravens discussing the merits and demerits of tucking into the mortal remains of a freshly-slain knight – none of this deterred Steeleye Span, for whom it was evidently a long-running favourite and who recorded it at least three times (on their 1970 debut Hark! The Village Wait, The Journey (1995) and Time in 1996), while Maddy Prior also recorded it for her 1993 solo album Year. The apparent Steeleye monopoly didn’t deter Barry and Robin Dransfield from recording their own version on 1977’s Popular to Contrary Belief and now we can add Bert Jansch’s appropriately bleak solo reworking to that roll call of the great and the good.

The album closes with ‘Oh My Father’, the third of Bert’s own compositions and a curiously anodyne folk-rock number which some bright spark with matching cloth ears in the A&R Department of Reprise Records decided was the obvious choice for a lead single. To be brutal, there’s nothing that really makes this song stand out from the crowd and perhaps we should be grateful that it tanked. The notion of Bert performing this to a disinterested crowd of arhythmic teenagers on Top Of The Pops, while Gary Boyle mimed his frankly self-indulgent lead guitar, doesn’t really bear thinking about.

That last number excepted (and even it has a certain historical interest), Moonshine is an extraordinarily good album, brimming with choice material, leftfield arrangements, some exceptionally fine performances by all concerned and containing, in ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, what might have been a huge commercial hit. Earth Recordings have done a fine job with the remastering and the result is a timely rerelease of an overlooked gem from Bert Jansch’s back catalogue, which has weathered the passing of the years better than a lot of 1970s albums. If you already own an older copy, this would be a good time to upgrade and get to know it all over again; if you’ve never heard it, then give it a spin – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (05 October 2015)

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