Bert Jansch - Living In The Shadows - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Bert Jansch - Living In The Shadows

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:2017-01-27

I’d say there’s a strong case to be made for Bert Jansch being one of the most influential guitarists in Rock and Roll. I realize that’s quite a statement but consider his heavy influence on Led Zeppelin, Paul Simon and Neil Young. Not to mention, the Smiths’ Johnny Marr. And that's just to name a very few. Of course, I’m keenly aware he wasn’t a Rock musician at all. But where would Led Zeppelin be without Bert to rip off?

Along with Davy Graham, Bert Jansch was undeniably one of the most groundbreaking figures during the 60’s British Folk Revival. During his long career, he cut some truly unforgettable albums. Particularly, in the 60’ and early 70’s, including those with the Folk Supergroup Pentangle. In the succeeding decades, however, his albums generally came and went without a trace. These include now revered classics like Moonshine and L.A. Turnaround. Yet, despite releasing strong obscurities such as From the Outside, most of the world turned their backs on Jansch in the 80's & 90's. Mercifully, Jansch was always too glum and dour to fall prey to the “twee” trappings of his genre. His gruff baritone reliably rough around the edges.

Living in Shadows focuses on Jansch’s 90’s output. Namely: The Ornament Tree, When the Circus Comes To Town and Toy Balloon. In addition, Light In the Attic have included an entire disc of unreleased tracks. Some from Bert’s own archives. Ornament Tree is Jansch at his most intimate and consistent. By far his most Celtic offering, featuring bodhran, flute and whistles. Circus is more Bluesy and outgoing. Toy Balloon falling somewhere between the two.

Ornament consists of strictly traditional fare. ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ and ‘Rambling Boys of Pleasure’ were well mined by the likes of the Pogues. One is inclined to wonder whether they were included to reach out to the brief Folk boom the Pogues and others inspired. Nevertheless, The Ornament Tree is a defiantly Folk album. Its concerns leaning toward the sylvan and pastoral. Dreamers, Ladies Fair and ‘Tramps and Hawkers’ populate throughout. Songs like ‘Mountain Streams’ and ‘The Blackbirds of Mullamore’ are obstinately out of step with whims of the era. Twenty-seven years later, Ornament Tree still sounds refreshingly timeless.

It took nearly five years for Jansch to release his follow up, When the Circus Comes to Town. Unlike, Ornament, it’s a more inconsistent, less assured album. Songs like ‘The Lady Doctor from Ashington’ are quintessential Jansch. The same goes for ‘Walk Quietly By’ and ‘No One Around’. It all goes to show, there’s nothing like Bert alone with an acoustic guitar. The only missteps are when he opts for more fleshed out backing. ‘Back Home’ sounds like it’s been cut and pasted from another, more slickly produced album. Not that its terrible, its simply jarring and not as singular. All of which makes Circus more haphazard than consistent. ‘Summer Heat’ fatally verges into smooth Jazz territory with some cheesy saxophone. The same is true of  ‘Living in the Shadows’ from which this collection derives its title.  Likewise, ‘Stealing the Night Away’ sounds a bit forced and overproduced. Despite all that, the Bluesy title track remains a late career classic.

Toy Balloon begins with a tribute to the brilliant but long forgotten Jackson C. Frank. Frank not only wrote ‘Carnival’ but wrote ‘Blues Run the Game’ which became a Folk staple back in the day, covered by the likes of Nick Drake and others. Along with a Jansch, this American ex pat was a big influence on the early British Folk Revival, not to mention on folks like Paul Simon (who produced and recorded Frank’s only album). Frank’s story is a tragic one but for another time. Suffice to say, I’m a big fan. All I can say is Jansch’s version is stunning.  

‘She Moved Through the Fair’ has become such a folk standard, it’s beyond cliché. However, Jansch’s arrangement takes it apart and rebuilds it into something new. Something he has done throughout his career. Another major highlight on this collection.

Sadly, when the full band kicks in for Balloon's Bluesy, ‘Got You’, it’s a mood killer. Thankfully, ‘Bette’s Dance’ brings us back to what Jansch does best. A hypnotic instrumental that artfully resists the trappings of overproduction. ‘Toy Balloon’ sounds frozen in time, as if it were cut in the mid 60’s. ‘Waiting and Wondering’ and ‘Hey Doc’ are the stuff than keep you coming back for more. Then once more, the full band likes of ‘Sweet Talking Lady’ interrupt the proceedings like a boisterous drunk. As with Circus, Toy Balloon seems torn between being stubbornly bedsit and reluctantly overproduced.

 Of course, it’s the extras that are going to rope fans in and I have no complaints there. While Living in Shadows successfully compiles a largely neglected and somewhat inconsistent period of Jansch’s career, there’s very little to quibble about.

It wasn’t until the turn of the century, that Bert’s chickens finally began to come home to roost. From Crimson Moon on, his releases boasted high profile fans like Johnny Marr, Hope Sandoval and Suede’s Bernard Butler. 2006 saw Jansch signed to Drag City, the fashionable Indy label that gave rise to Bonnie Prince Billy. Then, before anyone knew it, Bert was gone.

Fashions and trends may come and go, but Bert Jansch has always stood the test of time and bore the weather with all the stoic grace of a wild limbed oak. Some songs are Autumn. Some Winter. Others Summer and Spring. It all goes to show, Bert Jansch is indeed a Man For All Seasons.

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Great review!

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