The Black Swan – Bert Jansch
Drag City 325
While Clapton, Beck and Hendrix are more widely known, a set of acoustic players in London at the same time had about as much influence. Paul Simon listened to Davey Graham, Bert Jansch’s predecessor on the 60s British folk scene; Donovan, Neil Young and Jimmy Page listened to Jansch. Do the math — without Jansch, acoustic rock would not have sounded the same.
Jansch had the rock community’s ear when he became part of the Pentangle, the folk answer to Cream. Rather than going down in spectacular flames as Cream did, though, Pentangle faded. There’s never been a long gap between Jansch releases, but only a small cult has noticed most of them. Now, with indie types rediscovering hippie folk, Jansch has gotten another turn in the limelight, and he deserves it.
Since the Pentangle days, the engineering has gotten more modern and Jansch’s vocals have deepened. (“A Woman Like You,” sung in a boyish E on Pentangle’s Sweet Child in 1968, now appears in a leisurely A-Flat.) Overall, though, The Black Swan could have been recorded 40 years ago, and yet it sounds at least as contemporary as a Devendra Banhart release. Banhart appears, as does Beth Orton, who acquits herself well as a Jacqui McShee stand-in on this disc’s most grabbing cuts. No one takes the spotlight away from Jansch for long, though, and his intricate fingerpicking and jazz-flavored voicings and bends are still in place.
Admittedly, it’s not hard to figure out why Pentangle’s fame only lasted a few years. Jansch’s mastery is subtle but rarely striking — his music leans towards melancholy and formality. He attempts a bit of Modern Times Dylanesque assertiveness in “Texas Cowboy Blues,” including a crack about George Bush, but it’s an awkward fit, as he seems to acknowledge by offering the classical-flavored instrumental “Magdalina’s Dance” as the next cut.
Those of us who’ve spent recent years digging for old Jansch and Pentangle records in used vinyl bins, though, will be happy to see Jansch getting renewed attention. The Black Swan is similar fare to what Jansch has offered for decades and will likely continue to offer for further decades. There is still much to learn from it.