SUNDAY night I was lucky enough to catch Britfolk guitarist Bert Jansch at Largo. It may've been the most stunning display of acoustic guitar I have seen in my life -- and I have seen legendary axe-man Richard Thompson at least a dozen times. Now I know why Neil Young calls him the Hendrix of the acoustic: The shadings and nuance this stolid and unremarkable looking man coaxed out of his instrument while sitting quietly onstage were close to head spinning.
Drag City and saw cameos by Devendra Banhart and Beth Orton. He's been acknowledged not only by his peers but by Johnny Marr of the Smiths, who build some of the band's signature shimmer from Jansch's style, and younger musicians like Noel Gallagher and the Libertines' Pete Doherty, with whom he played in London not long ago.
A serious illness caused Jansch to cancel a tour recently, and as he's approaching 70 I'd given up on the chance to see him perform.
But Jansch just completed a short tour with St. Neil, who idolizes him also. I will let the readers do the math to note that Pegi Young's band -- she is the man's wife -- opened the Largo show. Overall this was generic alt-country, including Lucinda Williams' lovely "Side of the Road," which highlighted the limits of Ms. Young's singing. But the band itself, was terrific, strong all the way through with standouts being Anthony Crawford on a Gretsch White Falcon (!), Nashville pedal steel legend Ben Keith (Patsy Cline) and storied soul man Spooner Oldham (Percy Sledge, Aretha) on keyboards.
With all the alt-country high spirits I thought Bert's solo acoustic set would seem dour by comparison. But while many of the songs were gloomy, introspective Celtic ballads, my heart was racing nearly the whole time. He played a number of trad songs (introducing "Blackwaterside," whose chords were stolen by Jimmy Page much as Paul Simon took Martin Carthy's arrangement of "Scarborough Fair") and made several references to Anne Briggs, the enigmatic angel-voiced folk goddess with whom he once worked and lived. If memory serves he also played, on Sunday, "Rosemary Lane" and "Angie." Gracious and laconic between songs -- praising the Largo audience's reverential silence -- he gives off a distinctively understated vibe. (A friend who saw him in the '70s recalls him as being both rude and smashed -- this was a very different Bert.)
The sound system at what's now called Largo at the Coronet was perfect for the gentle fingerpicking Jansch favors, with its bends, weird voicings, hammer-ons and pull-offs. (He played almost the whole show, for what it's worth, with a capo between the 2rd and 6th frets.) By the time he encored with the frightening suicide ode "Needle of Death," which may be his best song, I was ready to explode. I have much of Jansch's recorded work, and own a recording of almost everything he played that night, but had no idea how genuinely moving and quietly virtuosic this show would be.
All hail Bert!
Notable Philadelphia: 12/12–12/18
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