Tuesday, June 02, 2009


Back in Nixon's day, when all pseudo-hippies were listening to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, a small cadre of would-be Hobbits discovered the wonders of the folk tradition of the British Isles. One Hobbit (let's call him Pippin; what the hell) found the wondrous album Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention, and passed it throughout the Shire, and soon the little folk were skipping merrily throughout suburban Chicago, singing "hey-nonny-nonny."

More albums followed. What We Did On Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking by Fairport Convention, Below the Salt and Parcel of Rogues by Steeleye Span, Bless the Weather and Solid Air by John Martyn, great but unheralded releases from Tir na Nog and Nick Drake, and, most crucially for this post, Sweet Child, Basket of Light, and Cruel Sister, by Pentangle.

The Hobbits got suckered in by the "fol-de-rol-diddle-a-day" choruses, but I'll give you the straight skinny. Yes, Pentangle borrowed liberally from the Trad songs of the British Isles. But they also borrowed from Delta blues, jazz, psychedelic jambands, and Indian sitar masters. In short, they were utterly unclassifiable. They had a cult following, but they never achieved a huge commercial breakthrough. They were probably too eclectic to pursue it seriously. Honestly, what do you do with a band that records old English murder ballads, Charles Mingus covers, and Furry Lewis blues tunes on the same album? What do you call that? I don't know. "Great" works for me.

I've been listening to much of this music again in my post-Shire life, this time courtesy of a boxed set called The Time Has Come. It was released a couple years ago, and I enjoyed it then, but I simply can't get enough of it now. There is so much goodness here that it is astounding. Pentangle had the requisite pure folk thrush in the person of one Jacqui McShee (every Trad band had one; see Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior for comparison's sake). Jacqui was just fine. But the real fireworks occurred instrumentally. Pentangle had two superb but very different guitarists in John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. Renbourn had the Trad folk background; Jansch wanted to jam on blues riffs. They were both spectacular in their own ways, and when you see a Pentangle song that is 13 minutes long, you can be assured, for once, that the band will be at its best, because Renbourn and Jansch will have plenty of space to solo and then duel with one another. Terry Cox on drums and Danny Thompson on bass essentially comprised a jazz rhythm section. They were five indomitable talents, and it couldn't, and didn't, last all that long. It was inevitable that they would split up and go their separate ways. But from 1968-1973 -- the period of this 4-CD boxed set -- they were one of the best, most creatively searching bands in the world. You owe it to yourself to check out this criminally overlooked band. This is timeless music, and it sounds as great today as the day it was recorded.

1 comment:

Living the Biblios said...

Here's my second to your tip of the hat to Pentangle. Great music!