A Man I'd Rather Be: Bert Jansch
by Donny Kutzbach
"He did for the acoustic guitar what Jimi Hendrix did for the electric."
-Neil Young on Bert Jansch
It was news enough when Neil Young—an artist who for some 40 years has stood as one of rock music’s most significant and enduring icons—announced he would embark on a solo acoustic tour of theaters that had him returning to Buffalo’s fabled Shea’s Performing Arts Center. The chance to see ol’ Neil with nothing more than a guitar tearing through one of contemporary music’s most enviable songbooks is a pretty big deal.
There was more, though. And it was a big “more” in the form of Bert Jansch supporting Young and opening up the run of dates.
Jansch is one of the last century’s most singularly influential guitarists, as well as a songwriter and singer of unmatched power. His unique and revolutionary combination of traditional folk, blues, and jazz touches, along with a tempered shrugging off of convention, have helped make Jansch a musician to whom many owe a great debt.
The laundry list of artists positing jis influence is too long and almost too incredible to list. It’s fair to say that whether you are into Led Zeppelin or Simon and Garfunkel, Elton John or Pavement, the Strawbs or the Smiths, there’s been an acknowledged Jansch touch in some of what you’ve loved.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1943, Jansch made his way with guitar in hand to London and into thick of England’s bustling and busking folk music scene in the early 1960s.
Back In The Old Folkie Days…
Let me admit something here and now: I listen to a lot of Neil Young music. There’s only a handful of artists who just get better and better the more you get into their art and who really deserve to be pored over. To me, Neil is certainly one of them. Last year, when Young’s massive Archives box set (Reprise) of vault recordings finally came to fruition and release after years of rumor and speculation, the mammoth 10-disc set only left me craving more. I’ve been left to imagine what the next chapter in the series will offer. So, going where all the best Neil things usually happen for me—in my head—I’ve written the ultimate Neil Young acoustic set list for this Wednesday’s show. It wouldn’t even have to be in this order, but it would go something like this:
After the Goldrush / Thrasher / Hey Babe / Flying on the Ground Is Wrong / Razor Love / Barstool Blues / Campaigner / Powderfinger / Journey Through the Past / Bandit / Harvest / Wonderin’ / Tonight’s the Night / Albuquerque / Stringman / Pocahontas / Motion Pictures / Ambulance Blues / Last Trip to Tulsa / Dreamin’ Man / Sugar Mountain / Helpless / Four Strong Winds.
Please share your ultimate Neil setlist in the comments area below.
His self-titled 1965 debut for the Transatlantic label remains a masterwork where trad folk meshes with stark, moody original compositions sung in a voice at once a little creaky but ever so distinctive and rich—placing Jansch on a parallel with Bob Dylan, who had recently and boldly done the same thing an ocean away. Where even Dylan can’t compare is with Bert Jansch’s eloquent, evocative finger-picking guitar style. The record includes the dark and beautiful ode “Needle of Death,” which has become Jansch’s signature song.
Jansch would later hook up with guitarist John Renbourn for a pair of records (Jack Orion and Bert and John), and the partnership would serve as the crux for Pentangle, a band that helped usher in an era of British folk rock across six records and an esteemed legacy as a live outfit alongside fellow travelers Fairport Convention.
It was during this time that Jansch, with members of Pentangle, recorded 1969’s Birthday Blues, arguably his greatest album, boasting a clutch of his originals that further shines a light beyond his peerless playing and on his gift for songcraft.
Recent years have further been a boon to the Jansch legacy. His most recent studio release—2006’s The Black Swan (Drag City)—was an acclaimed tour de force of new material that sounded like a culmination of his more than 40 years of work, showing signs that the groundbreaker was still going strong.
Mojo Magazine gave Jansch a Mojo Honors Award in 2006, and the following year the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards saluted the original members of Pentangle for their contributions to British music.
The Chicago taste-making imprint Drag City that released Black Swan additionally reissued a trio of Jansch’s celebrated and long out-of-print 1970s records on the Famous Charisma Label, making LA Turnaround, Santa Barbara Honeymoon, and A Rare Conundrum available for the first time as CDs and digital downloads, along with new vinyl versions.
American audiences are particularly lucky, as this tour with Neil Young marks Jansch’s first live appearances since he was forced to cancel a planned US tour last year.
It’s also worth noting that, though he is nearly 70 years old, Jansch is not only playing live but additionally working on new material for a forthcoming followup to The Black Swan.
While it was Mr. Young who triggered this Wednesday’s high-priced show at Shea’s to sell out in a matter of hours, the chance to hear Bert Jansch eloquently pick his six-string and sing his songs is—for those who know—certainly enough reason in its own right.
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