Graded on a Curve:
Bert Jansch,
Living in the Shadows, Downunder: Live in Australia

Bert Jansch never achieved widespread fame, but his talent as guitarist, singer, and songwriter did insure cult stature and the esteem of fellow musicians as his enduring ability documented him as a survivor. As evidence, Earth Recordings has collected Jansch’s ’90s albums and bonus stuff into the freshly available 4-disc set Living in the Shadows, with the era-equivalent Downunder: Live in Australia also slated for arrival on February 24.

Bert Jansch took a break from recording and performing in the mid-’70s, and after returning got somewhat lost in the shuffle. He didn’t stay away long, getting back to it by ‘77, and he ended the decade with the water fowl-themed all-instrumental Avocet, an excellent but terribly underheard LP, or at least until recently; in 2016 it was given multiformat reissue by Earth including an art edition with six lithograph prints by artist Hannah Alice depicting the album’s avian inspirations. That version is sold out, but the standard vinyl and compact disc (both regular and bookback editions) are still available.

Colours are Fading Fast, Earth’s 3LP/ CD collection of his collabs with Loren Auerbach, and the label’s revamp-repress of Jansch’s From the Outside, a fine and long quite obscure disc (initially issued only in Belgium), came out last April and June, respectively. Both are highpoints from a rough ’80s stretch, and now here’s the same enterprise’s expansive collection of his ’90s bounce-back. Bulky enough to resist serving as an introduction, for established fans thirsting to own the ’90s work on vinyl or just eyeballing that unreleased disc, Living in the Shadows is a sensible pickup.

Earth doesn’t just dump the entirety of the decade’s output into the set. Smartly absent is Sketches, a German release from 1990 that’s been described by a few observers as an affair for completists (giving it a stream, this assessment seems fair). Instead, the set begins with The Ornament Tree, a more focused collection of mostly traditional songs and nary an original that was also issued in ’90.

Loaded with accompanists who lend the disc a recurring Celtic flavor through flute, whistle, fiddles, accordion, and bodhrán (an Irish frame drum), the 12 songs register very much as a Jansch plus deft backing scenario instead of the Pentangle-ish offshoot aura of ’69’s Birthday Blues. To be expected of vintage rural song, the lyrical content is often grim or at least laced with strife, but the Celtic ambiance does take the edge off a bit and without conjuring images of leprechauns cavorting in fields of clover.

This is a tasteful, and as evidenced by the opening title track, sometimes gentle disc with a contemporary veneer, an aura that’s far preferable to an attempt at recapturing the essence of past glories. This helps to transcend any minor issues, as when the softness of Dave Turner’s bass tones in penultimate cut “The January Man” underscore the value of Danny Thompson. However, unless one suffers a flat-out allergy to Celtic sounds, The Ornament Tree gets Living in the Shadows off to a robust start, finding Jansch nimble-fingered and sturdy of voice.

He didn’t hit the studio again until the sessions for ’95’s When the Circus Comes to Town, a disc that swung the pendulum back toward originals. The good-natured “Back Home” and “Honey Don’t You Understand” both feature drums as the former flaunts a trio of femme backing vocalists, and they might disappoint those requiring their folk intake to be stark and edgy; for something closer to that, check out Earth’s earlier reissue of the authorized bootleg of the ’95 show that comprises Live at the 12 Bar.

But both tunes go down (not too) smoothly and reinforce the firm ground the artist was standing upon at this stage of his career. A touch of the informal enlivens this sharply recorded disc, with the sole non-original “No-One Around” belonging to backing singer Janie Romer (Jansch played it again for her 2004 CD Darkest Before Dawn).

Bringing Living in the Shadows nearer to Birthday Blues and Pentangle territory (as the chamber strings in “Morning Brings Peace of Mind” add a touch of distinctiveness), When the Circus Comes to Town still offers some fine slices of Jansch in solo mode, e.g. “Open Road” and particularly “The Lady Doctor from Ashington.”

Opening with a reading of his ’60s folk cohort Jackson C. Frank’s “Carnival,” Toy Balloon is the best of the three ‘90s studio albums, gaining strength as it sharply redirects from the moody folk warhorse “She Moved Through the Fair” into the full-blown blues rock of “All I Got.” It’s basically impossible to imagine any self-professed Jansch fan not digging the snaky solo-ness of “Bett’s Dance”; about the only possible quibble might be that it’s too short. B. J. Cole’s atmospheric pedal steel nicely enhances “Toy Balloon (for Little Anna-Rebecca).”

From “All I Got” forward Toy Balloon is focused upon Jansch’s own stuff and with a diverse emphasis on the bluesy, with “Hey Doc” oozing folk-club vibes while the full-band “Sweet Talking Lady,” complete with saxophone from Pee Wee Ellis, brandishes electric slide formulating visions of Taj Mahal and Lowell George. Again, the sharp stylistic angles could bug folks who’ve played Bert Jansch 1,000 times whilst sitting alone by the stereo in a rocking chair, but the palpable confidence and good judgment make it a winner, even the ’70s AOR-ish flair of “How it All Came Down.” Hey, especially that one.

Although the bonus LP is mostly made up of non-vocal takes, demos and alternate versions, the three-disc run they augment is distinguished for general steadiness and cohesion, and so Picking up the Leaves’ contents unwind in the ballpark of an actual album. The restart at the front of “Another Star,” one of a handful of entries unique to the set, does compromise this a little, but the whole is still way preferable to Sketches. The disc’s highlights are the three untitled instrumentals; the final two close the LP, one an early attempt at the more polished second, with both in delightful tandem with Renbourn.

Unlike Live at the 12-Bar, the ’98 recording Downunder: Live in Australia (first issued in 2001) does feature additional musicians, though only bassist Peter Howell was at the gig. Studio-finessing percussionist Ian Clarke in later to non-detrimental result, it captures Jansch in healthy if not peak form, and the low ratio of overlap with Live at the 12-Bar raises its value.

Those having discovered Jansch through his ’90s discs could easily be stoked by Living in the Shadows one-stop vinyl upgrade as the casual dabbler or the shelf-space deprived might appreciate the slimmer alternative of Downunder. It’s all part of one of the most fulfilling discographies in 20th century folk, and the ease of access to this later period is heartening.

The Ornament Tree

When the Circus Comes to Town

Toy Balloon

Picking up the Leaves

Living in the Shadows

Downunder: Live in Australia

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