Bert Jansch – Just a Simple Soul

Album Review | BMG | Review by Allan Wilkinson | Stars: 5/5

It was during the 1992 documentary Acoustic Routes, a film about Bert Jansch and his contemporaries, that fellow Scot Billy Connolly traced the career of this highly charismatic singer, songwriter and legendary guitarist, by taking a closer look at Bert’s various LP cover shots, which according to Connolly, illustrated the singer’s progress from the skinny young folk singer of the mid-1960s, sitting in a seemingly bare and empty flat, to the handsome caped elder statesman who looked as if he had “joined an obscure order of monks” on the cover of his 1982 LP Heartbreak. This was as good a way as any to traverse the story of Bert Jansch, however, another way would be to listen to 39 hand-picked tracks from Bert’s prolific back catalogue. Many of us are already familiar with Bert’s story, his contribution to British folk music, his status as a highly influential and highly regarded guitar player, his standing as a remarkable songwriter and the sheer wealth of music that he’s left us with. His name alone is an enduring legacy, which pops up in just about any conversation concerning the acoustic guitar. Some say ‘Yanch’, others say ‘Janch’, whilst his good pal of many years Ralph McTell says ‘Jance’. If the streets of London were once scrawled with primitive slogans to the tune of ‘Clapton is God’ courtesy of rock fandom, then the very same honour might well have been simultaneously bestowed upon Bert from the folk community, had the folk community been daft enough to bother. Fortunately, Bert’s music doesn’t just belong to the old guard and many new listeners are discovering his music every day and this collection makes a good starting place for the newbie. The two CD set features just short of 40 tracks that spans Bert’s career, from “Strolling Down the Highway”, the opening song on Bert’s self-titled debut LP of 1965 to “High Days” from his final album The Black Swan of 2006. In between, fellow guitarist and collaborator Bernard Butler has compiled a broad selection of Bert’s back catalogue, including his take on the Davy Graham instrumental “Angie”, the piece that every self-respecting guitar player felt they had to learn before considering themselves a guitar player. There’s a handful of fine arrangements of traditional songs here, including “Reynardine” and “Rosemary Lane”, then the odd contemporary song of the time, Ewan Maccoll’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” featuring a duet with Mary Hopkin, together with the odd blues number, including Bert’s take on the old Walter Davies blues “Come Back Baby”, as well as one or two of Bert’s own songs, including “Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning” and the evocative “Daybreak”, lest we forget that Bert was also an excellent writer as well as an innovative musician. The forty years covered here reveal that little has changed in Jansch’s vocal delivery, or indeed his idiosyncratic guitar style. It’s as if time has stood still. Though a very gentle man, Bert is known for the strength of his playing, his attack of the strings, which is always highly expressive. Although this collection covers his solo work, rather than his Pentangle repertoire, there are a number of collaborators featured here, including John Renbourn, Danny Thompson, Rod Clements, Helena Espvall, Bernard Butler and others. This is a fine representation of Bert Jansch’s best loved work.