November 21, 2006

Folk legend fills Empty Bottle with top-shelf classics

Making a rare U.S. appearance, the legendary Scottish folksinger Bert Jansch played an excellent set at the Empty Bottle on Friday night as part of “Three Million Tongues,” a festival highlighting experimental folk and psychedelic music. A founding member of the British folk group Pentangle, Jansch’s career as a solo artist goes back to 1965. His gruff voice, understated and heartfelt songwriting, and interpretations of traditional folk songs have lost none of their power over four decades.

What has truly earned Jansch his reputation, though, is his remarkable acoustic guitar playing. His finger-picking style, intricate but never showy or over-elaborate, had an unmistakable influence on the music of Nick Drake, as well as on Neil Young’s acoustic playing.

In recent years, the new/alt/psych-folk scene on the outskirts of American indie rock—which is sometimes dubbed the “new weird America” and personified by its de facto leader, Devendra Banhart—has reclaimed a number of forgotten ’60s and ’70s folksingers, such as Vashti Bunyan, Judee Sill, and Karen Dalton. Bert Jansch is more than deserving of such critical reevaluation, particularly in the U.S., where he is largely unknown.

Thankfully, his new album looks likely to bring Jansch acclaim and introduce him to a new generation of listeners. Released in September on venerable Chicago indie label Drag City, The Black Swan features contributions from Banhart, Beth Orton, and members of Vetiver and Espers, artists who cite Jansch as an influence. Another young Drag City artist, Will Oldham, was in the crowd at this show. It’s encouraging to see newer artists rally around an acknowledged forerunner like Jansch, supplementing his core audience with younger fans.

When Jansch took the stage at The Empty Bottle, however, he was accompanied by only a six-string acoustic, which proved to be a wise decision. Throughout his set, he maintained a real intimacy with the audience, a remarkable feat for a man playing quiet folk songs in a club where even rock bands often struggle to drown out chatter from the bar. Festival organizer Steve Krakow deserves some of the credit, reminding the crowd that they were in the presence of “one of the primordial guitar gods” and that they could take their conversations to the front room. The guitar god himself noted the hush as he tuned in preparation for the first song, commenting wryly, “You’re awfully quiet.”

From the first bars of his opener, the classic “It Don’t Bother Me,” Jansch had no trouble at all commanding the rapt attention of the packed club. “You twist my words like plaited reeds/ To mark your game and to help your needs/ But it don’t bother me,” he sang in a sharp voice that wavered without sounding affected as he picked out a complex pattern on the guitar with such assurance that it seemed the easiest, most natural thing in the world.

Although he cast a sharp disapproving look at a shouted request for his best-known song, the harrowing “Needle of Death,” Jansch played a fair amount of classic material from his early albums. “Strolling Down the Highway” showed off the eclectic nature of his style, incorporating blues and country elements into the traditional British Isles folk in which he’s grounded.

He also played his haunting arrangement of the Irish traditional “Blackwaterside,” which Jimmy Page ripped off wholesale for Led Zeppelin’s first album. A number of songs from The Black Swan matched the quality of the older material, particularly the enigmatic title track and the brief instrumental “Magdalina’s Dance,” a beautiful piece that could have gone on twice as long without any complaints from me.

Dark, brooding, and strikingly handsome in a Dylanesque way, Jansch cut a dashing figure back in the ’60s, but you wouldn’t recognize him today as the man on his early LP covers. Unlike Dylan, who has adapted the persona and dress of a dandified cowboy in recent years, Jansch’s stage presence and attire are unassuming. He performed while seated in a straight-backed chair and looked like any 63-year-old man off the street, even appearing faintly embarrassed by the intensity of the crowd’s response to his music.

Also in direct contrast to Dylan, whose arthritis has forced him to abandon his guitar in concert, Jansch’s playing seems to have only sharpened with time. In the half-second of silence between the end of a song and the burst of applause that followed, one could frequently hear murmurs of “my God” or “that’s sick” from the fellow guitarists in the audience, amazed at the master’s technical ability.

Jansch underwent heart surgery in 2005 and didn’t perform live at all that year, but it didn’t show in his performance on this evening. Visibly enjoying himself, he was taking pulls from a bottle of Pabst and forging on well past 1 a.m. Nearly everyone, though, stayed to hear him close the set with “Poison,” singing the ominous last verse (“If I was you I’d be friendly to your neighbor/Be glad that he don’t wanna be your enemy”) with marked intensity.

Earlier, an audience member had extracted a promise from Jansch that he would play Chicago again, then anxiously made him repeat it a second time, determined to hold the folksinger to his word. Hopefully, he’ll remember that promise before too long.