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Album review: John Renbourn “The Attic Tapes”

October 29, 2015

For anyone with even a passing interest in the music of John Renbourn, The Attic Tapes is an essential and absorbing collection which offers a remarkable insight into the roots of one of Britain’s greatest guitarists and songwriters

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of John Renbourn "The Attic Tapes"Like many of his peers who first came to fame with the British folk revival of the 1960s, the sorely-missed John Renbourn’s legacy casts a long shadow over much of what came thereafter. Arguably best known for his contributions to Pentangle and his duo work with the late Bert Jansch, he was nevertheless remarkably eclectic in his other choices of collaborators, who were as likely to be from a jazz, world, R&B or early (medieval and renaissance) classical background as folk. None of this ever stopped him working as a solo artist and The Attic Tapes, the recently-released compilation of some of John’s early recordings (both solo and collaboratively) represents, in his own words, “what was happening to me at the time and a reflection of the general scene”. There’s an added poignancy in that it’s the last project John completed in his lifetime and originally came about when, according to the sleeve notes, John’s long-time friend, guitarist Mac MacLeod “came across a tape of the two of us recorded in 1962… What emerged was a twang from the past – real timewarp stuff. Shortly after another tape turned up of a gig with Beverley Martyn and John Koerner. Other odds and ends followed and the present collection came to be assembled”. And what a collection it is, too!

The album opens with one of its many highlights: a very early recording (from 1962) of Davy Graham’s classic ‘Anji’, about which John says, “it is conceivable that this is an example of a loose version before Davy’s official recording standardised things”. It’s followed by another early “loose version”, a live take on Jackson C. Frank’s ‘Blues Run The Game’ which, of course was later recorded by John’s then housemate, friend and musical collaborator, Bert Jansch. To further remind us of the bond between John and Bert, there’s a sunny, uptempo studio version of ‘Courting Blues’ which makes a fascinating counterpoint to the more introspective version that Bert himself later recorded on his own self-titled debut for Transatlantic in 1965, particularly, as John mentions in the sleeve notes, he “wouldn’t even have met Bert then, let alone heard his recording”.

The theme of early “loose versions” is threaded throughout The Attic Tapes; John’s own debut album is especially well represented, with no fewer than seven previously unreleased takes on compositions which were later re-recorded. ‘The Wildest Pig In Captivity’ and ‘Candyman’ are from the studio, but the live recordings of ‘Train Tune’, ‘Judy’, ‘Beth’s Blues’, ‘Plainsong’ and Wizz Jones’ paean to hitchhiking,‘National Seven’ are an unexpected treat and show that John’s innovative playing and laconic vocal drawl were already significant factors in his unique sound long before he signed with Transatlantic Records.

The Attic Tapes is a treasure trove of early live recordings; in addition to the songs that later appeared on John’s first solo album, there are versions of ‘I Know My Babe’ (recorded at Les Cousins) and Derroll Adams’ ‘Portland Town’, while his second album, Another Monday, which pointed the way to the future sound of Pentangle’s iconoclastic merging of elements of folk, jazz and blues, gets a look in with a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Can’t Keep From Crying’. Of particular interest are two live recordings featuring the distinctive vocals of Beverley Martyn: a gripping reworking of Walter Davis’ slow blues ‘Come Back Baby’ (already an established favourite in John’s live set) and a powerfully brooding cover of Donovan Leitch’s ‘Picking Up The Sunshine’.

I mentioned in my introduction that this project was largely instigated by Mac MacLeod’s discovery of a tape from 1962 so it’s entirely fitting that two of Mac and John’s duets from that tape are included, particularly as they display John’s bluesier side to good effect. The first, a reworking of Luke Jordan’s 1927 ‘Cocaine Blues’, finds Mac laying down some wonderfully atmospheric fingerstyle guitar over which John lets loose some wailing harmonica riffs. ‘It Hurts Me Too’, first recorded in 1940 by Hudson Whittaker (aka Tampa Red) is based on the earlier ‘Things ‘Bout Comin’ My Way’ and recycles the melody of ‘Sitting on Top of the World’; John and Mac dispense with the piano and slide guitar of the originals in favour of a more country blues feel with John joining Mac on the choruses and dropping in some vintage acoustic blues licks in the breaks.

I think it’s fair to say that no compilation of John’s music would be complete without including some of his solo instrumental compositions and, while the live recordings more than meet this criterion, there are two studio recordings here which more than justify their inclusion. ‘Rosslyn’ is a gorgeous, intricate piece of what John in his sleeve notes calls “Celtic folk baroque” and a real highlight; while I wonder if the stripped down, bluesy ‘Buffalo’, as influenced by Robin Williamson as it is by Davy Graham, is a precursor of sorts to ‘Buffalo Skinners’ (from 1971’s Faro Annie), although if it is – and I’m by no means certain of that – then its development over the years is truly a testament to John’s artistic and creative vision.

Just as The Attic Tapes began with an acknowledgement of the influence of Davy Graham on John’s playing, it’s fitting that it closes with a live duet of the two on the timeless blues standard ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’, written by Jimmy Cox in 1923. Davy holds down the rhythm guitar and vocals while John’s (electric?) lead is a quiet tour de force that effortlessly integrates the influences of both the blues and jazz on his playing to produce something quite unique.

For anyone with even a passing interest in the music of John Renbourn, The Attic Tapes is an essential and absorbing collection (thanks in no small part to Colin Hood’s editing and tape transfers and to Mike Walker’s mastering) which offers a remarkable insight into the roots of one of Britain’s greatest guitarists and songwriters.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (29 October 2015)

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