Bert Jansch's lifelong dialogue with American music has been fruitful. As a boy, the Scottish folk guitarist was obsessed with the Mississippi bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. Later he was a key figure in the 1960s London folk scene that introduced Bob Dylan and Paul Simon to traditional British song. In the 1970s, his work was an influence on Neil Young.
On his latest album, The Black Swan, Jansch looks to new acolytes across the Atlantic for creative input. It features contributions from the Californian "freak-folk" star Devendra Banhart and members of Philadelphia's Espers. It was produced by Noah Georgeson, the San Franciscan who has worked with Banhart and the harpist Joanna Newsom.
Jansch "tied up the acoustic guitar in the same way that Hendrix did the electric", Neil Young once said. But live he's the anti-thesis of the rock god, shambling silently to his seat, pint in hand. He'd spat out the first lines of a wonderfully disgust-filled "It Don't Bother Me" before most people noticed that he'd started.
There were guest appearances from three Brits, the singer-songwriter Beth Orton, the dobro and lap-steel player Paul Wassif (both contributors to The Black Swan) and the guitarist Bernard Butler. Orton was the only disappointment: her wavering singing on the desolate "Katie Cruel" and the bluegrass gospel of "Watch the Stars" didn't do justice to Jansch's beautiful fretwork.
Butler provided gracefully tremoloed accompaniment to Jansch's astonishing manual contortions on the spiralling instrumental "Casbah" and the exquisite pastoral love song "Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning". Wassif, too, was an elegant foil, particularly on the relaxed, Cajun-inflected "Black Cat Blues".
There was something fascinating about watching Jansch on his own, though. He fully inhabited the fatalistic worlds of "Carnival" and "Blues Run the Game", both written by Jackson C Frank. The Irish prison ballad "The Old Triangle", a high point of The Black Swan, is a spare, moving evocation of despair in the shadow of the noose. "Let Me Sing", written for the Chilean musician Victor Jara, who was murdered by Pinochet's death squads, was equally potent.
By the end, Jansch was onstage with all three of his young guests for a sparkling rendition of the redemptive "When the Sun Comes Up". It was heartening to see the night rounded off so persuasively. At 66, Jansch is enjoying an Indian summer; it'll be intriguing to see who the "dazzling stranger" works with next, American or otherwise.Reuse content