The Revival of the British Folk Revival | Bleader

The Revival of the British Folk Revival

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Steeleye Span
  • Steeleye Span
Tonight at the Old Town School of Folk Music veteran British folk-rock band Steeleye Span performs in support of a recent live album commemorating its 40th anniversary. The group formed in 1969, a couple of years after Fairport Convention put British folk-rock on the map. Since then the group has undergone steady personnel shifts—brilliant guitarist Martin Carthy, bassist Ashley Hutchings (a founding member of Fairport Convention), and singer and guitarist Tim Hart have all served time—and the current incarnation has a rich folk-rock pedigree.

Perhaps the most important presence is lead singer Maddy Prior, a founding member of Steeleye Span and one of the greatest British folk singers of all time. The lineup also includes longtime bassist Rick Kemp and violinist Peter Knight. Guitarist Ken Nicol is a former member of the Albion Band, and drummer Liam Genockey, who’s played in the group since 1989, started out in jazz, working extensively with reedist Trevor Watts. The recent Live at a Distance (Park) pales in comparison to the group’s best work in the 70s, but Prior still sounds astonishing.

British folk continues to enjoy a renaissance: younger artists like Eliza Carthy and Rachel Unthank are giving it a modern spin, and the vintage stuff is an oft-cited influence on so-called freak folkers. Last month Drag City reissued three hard-to-find mid-70s albums by British folk great Bert Jansch, all of them with bonus tracks. (It also released his latest studio effort, The Black Swan, in 2006.) A guitarist and singer best known for his work in the brilliant jazz-flavored folk group Pentangle, Jansch has enjoyed a lengthy solo career, bending traditional repertoire and tropes to fit a variety of related forms, from blues to rock, with stunning instrumental facility. The three reissued albums, all on CD for the first time, were cut for British indie Famous Charisma—which also released records by the Bonzo Dog Band, Van der Graaf Generator, and most famously Genesis.

When Jansch signed with the label in 1973, Pentangle had quietly disbanded. His first Famous Charisma release was L.A. Turnaround, produced by former Monkees auteur Mike Nesmith; part of it was recorded in the home of label owner Tony Stratton Smith in Crowbridge, Sussex, and six tunes were cut in Nesmith’s studio in Sepulveda, California. On certain tracks you can hear an American influence, primarily in Red Rhodes’s gorgeous pedal-steel embellishments, and muscular bass lines from former Plastic Ono Band member Klaus Voorman give the music an oomph that the more sophisticated Danny Thompson never provided in Pentangle. Though none of these elements obscure Jansch’s personality, it’s hard not to see the recording as an effort to reframe his sound, albeit an elegant one. Jansch’s folksy sense of humor is still in evidence on “Cluck Old Hen,” where he threatens an his chicken with death in a boiling pot if it doesn’t step up its egg production—which, read as a metaphor for a strained human relationship, could become a particularly dark murder ballad. The reissue also includes a short verite documentary that captures some of the Sussex session.

Jansch returned to California in 1975 for Santa Barbara Honeymoon, where he waded much deeper into SoCal excess to make a record with little British identity. The record was produced by drummer Danny Lane, who’d also played on L.A. Turnaround, and his overdone, eclectic arrangements smother the songs; Jansch never had a chance against the Dixieland horns strolling through “Dance Lady Dance.” It’s by no means a bad record, though it was a critical and commercial flop, but it would’ve been better if it hadn’t strayed so far from folk. “Baby Blue” suffers from steel drums and a soft-rock groove, and “Lost and Gone” is clogged by proto-smooth-jazz sax and flute tooting and overbearing backing vocals. According to Mick Houghton’s liner notes, many of these flourishes were overdubbed later, and Jansch was unusually disconnected from the process: “They just came and picked me up every day to take me to the studio,” he says in the liner notes. “I think, perhaps, that added to a sense of my not being as involved in the shape of the record as I would normally be.” The singer and his songs aren’t the problem, the arrangements are— and one of the bonus tracks, a live solo version of “Dance Lady Dance,” proves it.

Jansch cut the third Famous Charisma record back in England in 1976, retreating to Putney and working with young musicians who hung out at the folk club Half Moon—including future Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers. A Rare Conundrum, released in ’77, is a gorgeous, stripped-down album; Jansch is back in his comfort zone, his singing and guitar playing returned to their proper place in the spotlight. Sadly, the combo that backed him here only played a few live gigs with him, all of them before the record was issued.

Chicago’s great Numero Group reissue label hasn’t delved into British folk, but it has turned an eye toward artists who could be seen as American counterparts to the English revivalists, from the female singers on Ladies From the Canyon to the post-John Fahey fingerstyle players on Guitar Soli. Numero recently released Lonesome Heroes, a collection of obscure singer-songwriter material, originally issued between 1970 and 1984, mostly in small private pressings. The typically informative liner notes by Rob Sevier provide historical background and critical analysis, and though the music is uneven, its idiosyncrasies are fascinating.

Today’s playlist:

Azabumba, Azabumba (independent)
Ola Kvernberg Trio, Folk (Jazzland)
Various artists, In the Pocket With Eddie Bo (Vampi Soul)
Novos Baianos, Vamos Pro Mundo (Som Livre)
Monks, Black Monk Time (Light in the Attic)

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