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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Pentangle fan

The Royal Festival Hall, London, June 29th 2008

I saw Pentangle in 1972, on what must have been the last tour of the original ensemble before they imploded. Even the stultifying surroundings of what I think was then called the Solihull Civic Centre and an audience mainly there to see “the group that had recorded that theme to that BBC TV series”, couldn’t suppress the unique brand of musical creativity that defined the band’s sound, which in itself was hard to define, if you see what I mean.

Folk, jazz, jazz-folk, folk-jazz, folk-rock; I’m sure all of these descriptions and more have been used but none seem to do complete justice to a band described recently in the same Guardian article as “the Modern Jazz Quartet of folk”, and “Britain’s Grateful Dead”. Of course, it was a unique assembly of musicians: guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, one with a leaning towards early music, the other a penchant for folk and blues; vocalist Jacqui McShee from the traditional school of folk; bass player Danny Thompson who had worked with artistes as diverse as Roy Orbison, Alexis Korner and Davy Graham, and jazz drummer Terry Cox, who had also played with Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Fittingly for a group who became famous for their hard drinking, they came together in a pub on London’s Tottenham Court Road.
Having signed to the new Transatlantic Label, they found an ambitious manager in former PR man Jo Lustig, an unlikely character in the world of folk, who also subsequently managed Ralph McTell, Steeleye Span and Richard and Linda Thompson. Commercial success of sorts followed with two top fifty hits, one of which, ‘Light flight’, also became the theme tune for a ground-breaking BBC series ‘Take three girls’. Six albums in four years (compare that with Radiohead’s seven in 14 years) saw the group’s sound shift inexorably towards a stronger folk emphasis as the influence of Jansch predominated, but they were always an oddity, somewhat on the edge of the folk scene, never to be compared with say Fairport Convention, who sat firmly at the heart of the folk-rock scene.
But the demands and influence of Lustig, combined with hectic touring schedules (and for some the hectic drinking) all took their toll, and early in 1973 Jansch walked, leading to a ‘permanent’ split. In 1982 the band reformed briefly with its original line-up before embarking on an number of personnel changes, leaving only McShee and Jansch as founding members. In 1995 McShee, along with husband (and current Fairport drummer Gerry Conway) established Jacqui McShee's Pentangle (with McShee as the only original member) who tour to this day. However not to be outdone by Fairport Convention, Pentangle received a Lifetime Achievement award from BBC Radio 2 in 2007, and later that year announced this one-off gig at the Royal Festival Hall, which soon morphed into a 13-date UK tour.
McShee looks nervous, as though she’s never seen an audience before.
Renbourn McShee
John Renbourn
Jacqui McShee
Whilst her colleagues slip easily into their chairs, Jansch stage right, Renbourn stage left, Thomson standing behind with his upright bass, Cox slightly to the right of Jansch with his diminutive drum kit, McShee seemed somewhat overcome by the sight of a packed Festival Hall, and hesitantly worked her way through the first two songs ‘The time has come’ and “our hit”, ‘Light flight’. But behind her the band were already purring to perfection. Jansch playing more of a rhythm finger-picking role, Renbourn complimenting his guitar with a melodious lead riffs and chords.
Thomson was devastating on bass, discreet and supportive when required, then booming forward with wonderfully-structured solos. Cox, who had given up the skins for a career running a restaurant in Menorca, was wonderfully deft, delicate, and light of touch, more brushes and soft timpani mallets than sticks. And by the third song, “This is a real sixties type of song – castles, hunting, maidens and all that kind of stuff…” McShee was in the space too, playing complex vocal patterns against Cox’s chops. What followed was unsurprisingly a best of set, with songs like ‘Once I had a sweetheart’, ‘Market song’, ‘The house carpenter’ (when Renbourn struggled to sit down on the floor - “This wasn’t my idea” he grumbled as he was handed his sitar), ‘The cruel sister’ (when Jansch took up the banjo), ‘Brutal tale’ (with a spectacular Renbourn solo), ‘I am a maid and deep in love’ and ‘I’ve got a feeling’, based on Miles Davis’ ‘All Blues’.
They finished off with their worst song of the night, the hugely dated faux gospel song ‘Will the circle be unbroken’ best left to the Primary School classroom, and noticeably forgotten by Jansch who was already bidding his farewells to the audience before being reminded there was one more song left. But this apart, most of the evening had felt as fresh as a daisy, timeless, accomplished, inventive and occasionally edgy, which is a bit odd because some of the recordings can sound very dated. The concert marked the fortieth anniversary of something (everywhere I looked it said something different, proving that memories aren’t what they were) and of course there’s a huge new retrospective box set you can buy. But if you want my advice try to see a live performance (there must be more before they all fall out again) - it is like a wonderful mixture of Fairport Convention, the Modern Jazz Quartet, The Box Tops, Grateful Dead, Charles Mingus, Muddy Waters, Davy Graham … - Nick Morgan (photographs: various sources and Nick's iPhone)
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