Bert Jansch was a towering figure in the modern folk-rock scene, a high water mark that everyone who’s ever strapped on an acoustic guitar and told stories to strangers aspires to emulate. But unlike many of his peers in the field, there was a quiet humility to the man despite his gigantic talent, something unmistakably wounded and inescapably human that makes his work resonate in such a timeless manner with each generation that discovers it. With a voice warm and earthy as good aged single malt whiskey and a deft picking style that unerringly melded direct simplicity with technical dexterity and abundant melody, Jansch represents the archetypal troubadour/bard running headlong into the complexities of modern man. This fascinating dichotomy has rarely been laid bare so well in his catalog as the wonderful 30th anniversary edition of long out-of-print 1982 album Heartbreak (released November 6 on Omnivore Recordings), where the original Los Angeles studio sessions are paired with a previously unreleased solo live performance from McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica from summer of 1981.
By juxtaposing one of Jansch’s most well-realized, contemporary sounding studio sets with the naked grace of his live experience allows the listener to revel in the two sides of this shiny silver coin, each inextricably melded to the other, a tension between past flavors and late 20th century tastes – a prickly conversation that chatters away in Jansch’s music from his early days in Pentangle on through his 21st century records Black Swan (2006) and Edge of a Dream (2002), whose nucleus one hears in Heartbreak, where Jansch’s nimble acoustic guitar fences with a particularly tasty Albert Lee, who wields electric and acoustic guitars as well as mandolin. A tight but relaxed rhythm team of Randy Tico (bass) and drummers Matt Betton and Jack Kelly provides an intuitive pulse to a strong set of originals and choice covers (Elvis nugget “Heartbreak Hotel” and traditionals “Blackwater Side” and “Wild Mountain Thyme,” the latter featuring a nice vocal turn from Jennifer Warnes). First time producers Rick and John Chelew were super fans who brought Jansch into a Silverlake studio and coaxed some lovely performances from the man during what were reportedly dark, drunken days where the once well-established musician was struggling to find his footing and relevance. The closest sonic relatives in Jansch’s catalog are the two stellar albums he made in California the previous decade – L.A. Turnaround (1974) and Santa Barbara Honeymoon (1975) – and Heartbreak feels like the sequel these gems never received in the 70s.
The live disc is a treasure, where it feels Jansch is singing right to us, telling us brief tales and offering funny quips as he weaves his way through tunes that would end up on Heartbreak as well as unique renditions of modern folk staples “If I Were A Carpenter” (Tim Hardin) and “Blues Run The Game” (Jackson C. Frank) as well as a gorgeous reading of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” that neatly returns to tune to its folk roots after Roberta Flack made a pop hit of it. What this set makes clear is Jansch needed nothing but a single guitar and a microphone to mesmerize audiences, the proceedings filled with pin drop intimacy and good humor (including a ditty about the delights of potatoes to a hungry soul). While a whole new set of folks got turned onto Jansch from his extensive touring with Neil Young the past few years, this McCabe’s concert shows what he sounded like at his gently troubled, big hearted best – a gift to long time enthusiasts and a belated hello for anyone still discovering this international treasure after his passing last year.