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Arts and Entertainment

Bert Jansch and the Pegi Young Band @ Largo at the Coronet 06/20/10

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Bert Jansch by Neate Photos Camber 06 (Small).jpg

Photo of Bert Jansch, in Camber, England 2006 by neate photos via flickr.
Englishman Bert Jansch, for nearly fifty years considered one of the world’s great practitioners of the acoustic guitar, has been spending an unusual amount of time in the United States this year, much of it as the guest and opening act of Neil Young. Young not only acknowledged Jansch’s “Needle of Death” as the source of an untintentional/ subliminal rip in his own “Ambulance Blues” years ago, he’s brought Jansch on stage to perform as a duet, as if to erase any lingering doubts: even I rip off some stuff once in a while, and some of it was from this guy. (One only wishes Jimmy Page might be as generous with the acknowlegements.)

For this LA visit, his first in three years, Jansch found himself on the bill with a different member of the Young clan: Neil’s wife Pegi, who’s emerged from her husband’s backing band as a singer-songwriter in her own right, hanging onto a lot of the musicians she’s bumped into along the way. Steel player Ben Keith, bassist Rick Rosas, electric pianist Spooner Oldham and guitarist Anthony “Sweet Pea” Crawford are all alumni of various Young ensembles, while only drummer Phil Jones comes from outside the family. Pegi’s material and voice continue to develop, and both have gained confidence since her appearance at the Nokia Theater in fall of 2007. The first rate cast of backup players sure doesn’t hurt; steady hands like Keith and Oldham have a way of adding understated elegance and dignity to everything they touch. Pegi beamed with pride as she shouted out to her kids, who were in attendance. (Neil, a key player on some of her studio recordings, was nowhere near the stage, though he was spotted in the house before the set.)

Jansch took the stage after a short break, and had the appearance of a giant bear, perched on a tiny stool, with enormous paw-like hands that seem to be barely moving up the guitar’s neck as the most fabulously complex, polyphonic lines start pouring out of the body. As a member of Pentangle in the late 1960s, Jansch was one of the key figures in bringing thousand-year old musical tradition into the realm of psychedelia, and his solo performances retain some of that band’s hypnotic, mesmerizing quality. The tunes are ancient enough to be deeply familiar, felt in the blood like favorite songs from a past life. Nodding to the legendary Anne Briggs, a popularizer of age-old traditional songs at the time Jansch was coming into his own, he noted “You can always tell the songs I learned from Anne… they’re meant to be sung much higher than I can sing them.” Like Leo Kottke, his voice is serviceable and occasionally poignant, but the real attraction is the universe of sound coaxed out of six strings in the hands of a master.

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Toward the end of the set Jansch broke into “Needle Of Death,” one he noted he hadn’t done in a long time. It’s easy to see how this stuff can dig its way into one’s brain and come out as an apparantly “original” composition years later, it’s made from the stem cells of music itself, the magma out of which everything we know about popular music has emerged. And to see a player with such miraculous control of the instrument work in territory that is so basic, so elemental, is indeed a rare privilege, even in a town as overflowing with musicians as this one.