Playing time: 47 minutes
Availability (out of 3): **
Related website(s): http://www.johnrenbourn.co.uk
My rating: 9/10
I like… The variety of genres, the evocative and deft guitar playing
I’m less keen on… Nothing really, although ideally I’d have liked the inclusion of some of John’s interaction with the audience
I first came upon the late John Renbourn’s music through references in guitar tuition material. Not long after, I obtained a vinyl copy of “John Renbourn”. Years later I added a CD or two to my collection, then, after hearing him live twice with harpist/multi-instrumentalist Robin Williamson, added a few more. I count myself honoured to have had my copy of this album autographed – complete with a pentangle symbol – by John at one of those gigs, where I bought it.
John Renbourn’s music is hard to categorise, other than (mainly) “acoustic fingerstyle guitar”.
From the early 1960s until his sudden death in 2015 during a tour with Wizz Jones, he played and arranged music from a range of sources, and often fused styles together: traditional British and Irish folk, jazz, blues, baroque, and a dash of “world” music. He is probably best known for his time with the band Pentangle, which he co-founded, and for his collaboration with the equally legendary (and equally innovative) guitar player Bert Jansch.
I was surprised to read in an interview that, despite his prowess on guitar and relaxed stage manner, John’s greatest pleasure came from arranging music rather than playing or performing it.
This is borne out by the fact that for a number of years in his later career John devoted his time to travelling and performing material with which he was intimately familiar, constantly re-working and improvising around it.
comes in a jewel case with 12-page accompanying booklet. As well as other information, the booklet tells of John’s love for the place where the gig took place. Despite its being “a dingy old basement”, he also describes it as “about the nicest and funkiest place I have ever played in.”
Given the venue and, judging by the absence of any reference to the actual recording of the tracks, the impromptu nature of the recording, the sound quality is good.
I’d have preferred the album to have captured some of John’s interactions with the audience; this is a minor issue, but in effect it makes the album more like a series of live recordings rather than capturing a live performance.
This poignant song, based on actual events (though not strictky accurate!), tells of the ill-fated expedition to find the “north-west passage” in 1845 in which both Franklin’s ships and 128 crew were lost almost without trace, despite the reward offered by the British government.
The Inuit later had some disturbing tales to tell.
I loved this song when I first heard it (as recorded by John with Pentangle), and although this rendition lacks that version’s haunting backing vocal of Jacqui McShee, it’s strong. I like the simple but poetic words (“…only the eskimo in his skin canoe/was the only one who ever came through…”, “In Baffin Bay where the whale fishes blow/the fate of Franklin no man may know…”), the gentle and poignant tune and John’s understated but deft guitar playing.
South Wind/Blarney Pilgrim
The first in this medley comes from a wistful Irish song of feeling homesick; having re-located in the north of the island, the south wind stirs memories of home. I love the stately way that John plays this, with some lovely embellishments and sustained notes. The second tune is a fitting contrast, the traditional Irish upbeat “Blarney Pilgrim”.
(Note that the photo isn’t of the “Blarney Stone”itself; the “Stone” is part of a castle wall ad to kiss it entails stretching out across a drop while being held by a companion; there are now iron bars to make this safer than it once was!)
Sandalwood Down To Kyle
At just over 7 minutes, this song showcases John’s evocative playing. It has something of a mysterious sound to it, enhanced by the altered tuning in which it is played (DADGAD). A traveller asks a man for charity,and is invited to his home for hospitality and to tell his sad tale.
is a jazzy improvisation. I think that the casual listener may find its duration rather too much for their liking, but anyone who enjoys acoustic guitar or jazz/jazz-based music will find it a delight. It was a tune that John loved to perform.
Great Dream From Heaven
comes from the playing of the fabulous Joseph Spence from the Bahamas. (I’ve posted a review of his Smithsonian-Folkways album).
Joseph Spence on his porch
I first heard this tune on Ry Cooder’s “Into The Purple Valley”, fell in love with it, and can play a (very!) simple version of it on guitar myself.
John delivers a fine rendition of it here, with a free and jazzy guitar introduction that includes a few phrases from the hymn “Abide With Me”. As the song progresses John sings the simple words, and accompanies and solos beautifully with his guitar. Its’s simply gorgeous!
Here’s another live version played by John:
The Mist-covered Mountains Of Home
is a very evocative tune which was probably originally composed for highland pipes. Again I like the duration of this tune, with allows time for it to be explored and improvised.
is described by John as “a wonderful song of a fiddler on the road”, and it’s hard to disagree. I like the upbeat tune and sound of this, and its juxtaposition after “Mist-covered Mountains”, and again I like the duration of it, (almost 6 minutes) which enables John to do justice both to the words and the tune.
If John had a “hit” with his fans, this is probably it. It also gives an insight into John’s interests and influences. It was first recorded by Booker T & The MGs. John said of it that “It is fun to play and I have been doing so for years. As time passes, less and less of the original remains, but the whole thing is peppered with Davy Grahamisms”. Along with “Great Dreams”, I think this is the highlight of the album.
I suppose that John’s eclectic repertoire may prevent his music from gaining a wider appeal. It’s beyond doubt that many of his fans were themselves guitar players.
On the other hand, his eclecticism should mean that many of his albums have much of interest to others. Perhaps this isn’t the best introduction to his music, and there is a splendid “Best Of” that would serve as a good taster of his music at an absolutely bargain price.
I feel, however, that the live audience fed John’s performance and improvisations on this album, and anyone who is familiar with his music or who has a love of acoustic guitar music across a number of genres would really enjoy this, and the more it’s listened to the more nuances become apparent.
My rating: 9/10
Although this is a non-profit-making blog, I am anxious to credit illustrations:
Section “Who?”: http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/68/5c/a1/685ca1be6d0fea8819416145a360566b.jpg
Franklin poster: “Reward for the discovery of Franklin’s ships” – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franklin’s_lost_expedition
Blarney Stone: http://www.skibbereeneagle.ie/uncategorized/blarney-blarney-no-more-of-this-blarney/
Joseph Spence: https://uk.images.search.yahoo.com/search/images;_ylt=A9mSs3WnpYtYp7sAzJ5LBQx.;_ylu=X3oDMTB0ZTgxN3Q0BGNvbG8DaXIyBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNwaXZz?p=joseph+spence&fr=mcafee&fr2=piv-web#id=66&iurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.folkways.si.edu%2Fimages%2Fexplore_folkways%2Ffeatured_artists%2Fjoseph_friends_large.jpg&action=click