August 28, 2007
On a blazing Indian summer evening in downtown Portland where the second floor of the Crystal Ballroom became soggy with humidity and stagnant air, I had the privilege to witness the legendary Bert Jansch in concert. From the opening notes of “It Don’t Bother Me,” the title track from his second LP in 1965, it was like observing someone who invented the fucking guitar as his fingers were so agile that it made me never want to pick up the instrument again. His unique way of playing has almost single-handedly modernized the way that acoustic based music is played. The other thing about Jansch that makes him so amazing and untouchable is that he does not confine himself to merely be a member of one genre like so many artists do, rather he takes his folk, blues and rock influences and adds just as much of his own autonomous style to create an amalgam of music that is both highly varied and also instantly recognizable.
He performed a variety of old and new material, covering an entire career that has lasted more than forty years. The marvelous “Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning,” from 1974’s L.A. Turnaround was precluded by a description of the song’s origin in which Bert spoke about a time he spent in Paris with fellow Pentangle guitarist John Renbourn, where the two would be drinking wine at cafes early in the day while observing French denizens coming and going. The song, which echoes with curiosity and longing, includes the line, “If I were a small bird so tiny I’d hide in her hair just to be near her.” He may have been inebriated well before lunch time, but he was still clearly able to create some beautiful songs regardless.
Of the older songs, he performed “Rosemary Lane” with just as much somber passion as the original recording. From the same album, he did a wonderful version of “Reynardine,” one of his very best early songs. Of course the concert would not have been complete without “Blackwaterside,” a song that Led Zepplin thoroughly ripped off on their first album and translated into a rather tepid cover, which they dubiously retitled “Black Mountain Side.” Additionally, he played “Strolling Down the Highway” from his legendary and best known eponymous first album. The crowd seemed particularly pleased with Jansch’s choice to perform this one.
Surprisingly, his newer songs stood up just as strong as the older ones. “Morning Brings Peace of Mind,” from 1995’s underrated When the Circus Comes to Town, was simply stunning live, one of the best songs of the evening. “Katie Cruel” was outstanding too. On his newest record, The Black Swan, this track is sung by Beth Orton, which is kind of a shame because Jansch handled the vocals on the live version with such command. Those unfamiliar with his repertoire would probably have trouble figuring out which songs were old and which ones were newer.
It is a rare occasion when Bert Jansch tours the United States and he delivered with much more auspice than I had anticipated. He still sounds great and his voice has hardly altered over the years. After the show, I spoke with him briefly and he said that his three long out of print albums that were recorded for Charisma Records in the mid 1970’s are going to be reissued sometime next year. This is wonderful news for Jansch enthusiasts as these albums have never been released on CD before and they are nearly impossible to find on LP as well.