A just-released collection of previously unheard home-recorded tracks catches the great British folk guitarist (and Pentangle legend) just before he made his name in the early 1960s. Below, hear key tracks from the album.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
John Renbourn was one of the great folk fingerpickers of the 1960s, classically trained but best known for his work alongside Bert Jansch in Pentangle. The Riverboat label’s new collection of previously unreleased, home-recorded tracks, The Attic Tapes, catches him just before he made his name, in the early 1960s, a formative period when he hashed out his mix of folk, blues and baroque classical and toured the south of England with cultish innovator Mac MacLeod.
The name of the compilation comes from the fact that the tapes were discovered in someone’s attic a remarkable find made all the more remarkable by the clarity and quality of these cuts. In the home-recorded tracks (there are a few live cuts), Renbourn sounds like he is sitting right next you, dexterously tracing out complicated patterns of three finger and thumb picking, his skill eclipsed only by the warmth and lucidity of the tone he coaxes.
Other 1960s not-quite-yet luminaries make cameo appearances. Beverly Martyn sings a tough, reverberant blues on “Picking Up the Sunshine” and, later, “Come Back Baby,” punching out a gutsy melody over Renbourn’s bends and slides. Mac MacLeod, who talk Donovan how to flat pick, is on hand for his signature “Cocaine” and “It Hurts Me, Too;” he and Renbourn would later, in 1964, record “Cocaine” as a demo together. He covers Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” in one of the album’s best vocal tracks. And, weirdly, Renbourn performs the intricate, intoxicating finger-picking exercise “Anji” several years before its author Davey Graham got his version on tape. Graham also sings on the Django-esque “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” which closes the disc.
Mostly, though it’s Renbourn himself, razor sharp but unhurried, playing melody and counterpoint, folk and blues, call and response, all by himself. Casual, even sleepy sounding on tracks like the live “I Know My Babe” (recorded live at the then-pre-eminent Cousins folk club), he nonetheless executes complicated tangles of notes with blazing speed and certainty, dissolving the difficulty in an unshowy virtuosity. Renbourn is, obviously, known mostly for his folk skills, but here in the 1960s, he was steeped in swampy blues. Songs like “The Wildest Pig in Captivity” bend and curve and slide low-riding Delta style, with only a touch of baroque ornamentation.
Renbourn was still a year or two out from 1963, the year he met Bert Jansch, recorded the Bert and John album and laid the foundations for Pentangle, but you can already hear his restless, genre-crossing curiously in the way that blues morphs into Celtic folk, and Appalachian finger-picking leads to renaissance motifs. “Plainsong,” one of several original Renbourn compositions, is damned near unclassifiable, classical flourishes melting into the sunny serenity of porch blues.
The surprise, really, is not that Renbourn was such a great player, but that he sounds so well, on tapes that have moldered for half a century and were probably never that great to begin with. But there it is, the sound quality is wonderful, warm and intimate but shockingly clear. Renbourn himself participated in the making and annotating of these cuts, but he passed away earlier this year, at the age of 70, before the material could be released. Sad, but if you close your eyes, it sounds like he’s right there across the room, alive and well and playing his heart out.
Below, watch a very special video of Renbourn and co-conspirator Bert Jansch of (comparatively) recent vintage from the DVD “Acoustic Routes”.