Bert Jansch with Pegi Young and The Survivors @ Johnny D's, Somerville, MA, December 9, 2010
Bert Jansch is about as close as it gets to a living legend in the folk realm, but before he's cast in amber and tucked away like a forgotten museum exhibit piece, he's still got an active voice. A fair bit of that credit should go to Drag City, who has an impressive history of reissuing records of castaways from years gone by (eg, The Red Krayola, Gary Higgins, Death, etc). Four years ago they released the Scotsman's first batch of new recordings in eight years with _The Black Swan_, a tremendous return to form and much like Byron Coley's resurrection of John Fahey via the pivotal article in Spin years ago, significantly raised his profile among a new generation of listeners. Last year the venerable indie label also reissued three vital recordings of the 70's era (LA Turnaround, Santa Barbara Honeymoon and A Rare Conundrum).
Jansch's steel-string technique, staccatoed with frequent string bending, remains the force it's been since the 1960's, and remains as fresh and airy as ever. His lyrical content can be quite dark,and though he didn't play his famous "Needle Of Death," recently performed with a man who is no stranger to intravenous happenings, he did play "Ducking And Diving," a song that Jansch wrote after spending some time with Pete Doherty. Older gems such as "Rosemary Lane" and "Blackwater Side" resonated with the hushed, reverent crowd and he tipped his cap to fellow folk musician/inspiration Jackson C Frank by playing two compositions of his, "Blues Run The Game" and "Carnival."
Before playing "High Days" he noted that it had recently been added to the set list at some coaxing of friends and fans, and I was particularly happy to hear my favorite song from The Black Swan. Sidenote: Darren Aronofsky missed a great opportunity to use Jansch's music in that film of the same name, unlike Noah Baumbach with 2005's The Squid and the Whale, and Jansch also played fellow folk musician/whaler/miner Owen Hand's "My Donald" which talks of the hard life at sea on a whaling boat. If you don't know Jansch's music but like what you have heard from Richard Thompson or Nick Drake, you can do no wrong by getting familiar with it.
Pegi Young is most famously linked to her husband Neil, and aside from sharing a surname she has also borrowed some of his touring band. The late Ben Keith was missed at his familiar guitar spot (hence the band name The Survivors), but Rick Rosas was there at the bass station, and legendary keyboardist Spooner Oldham was also along for this tour. Young's got an easy going and honest singing style, and the band as expected was solid, not overplaying, just keeping the straightforward folk-rock songs on target. But there was nothing there to differentiate the material from any capable bar band, and a grave mis-step was the Devendra Banhart cover; fully drained of any emotion, it was flat and really boring. One got the sense that had she chosen a different spouse, no one would care. The large tour bus parked outside the club, coupled with the fact that Neil had hand-picked Jansch for opening duties on his solo Twisted Road tour earlier this year gave hope that perhaps Shakey was ensconced in the bus and would make a special appearance in the small club. Alas, it was not to be, but New York got decidedly luckier.