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BERT JANSCH "Dazzling Stranger" Castle Music CMEDD009
BERT JANSCH "Live at the 12-Bar" Castle Music ESMCD921
BERT JANSCH "Crimson Moon" Castle Music WENCD 211

What can we say about Bert? "Seminal stuff", "hugely influential", "still fresh today after all these years", "unique stylist" ... it's all too easy to dip into the cliché - and superlative- dictionaries! This trio of releases simply underlines his early startlingness - bursting on to the folk scene in the wake created by Davey Graham in the mid-1960s - and his continued productivity and skill. He brought a world-weary, limited-but-extremely-effective voice, blinding guitar technique and a melange of jazz and blues influences to traditional folk - both by himself, with partner-in-crime John Renbourne and in Pentangle.

The two "Best ofs" bring you the spiky blues of "Strolling Down the Highway", the delicate but insistent "Blackwaterside" and the desperation of "Needle of Death" - all songs and versions we were surely born knowing? The Limited Edition set is unique amongst Jansch-anthologies in omitting "Angie" - that schoolboy guitarist's rite of passage. If you could play Bert's version of Angie - or even a reasonable facsimile - you were (a) cool, (b) clearly beyond the strumming stage and ... this most important ... (c) likely to enhance your chances with the opposite gender!

The live "Bootleg" makes it clear that Bert is capable of returning to his greatest hits without sounding fed up with them, as well as developing and writing new repertoire. The voice is virtually unchanged, the guitar is, if anything, better than ever. As live recordings go, it's pretty good - straight to DAT with some audience noise and shuffling included, but nothing to put the listener off. There's an extremely distinctive version of "The Curragh of Kildare" that epitomises the Jansch approach to arrangement and the effectiveness of that rough-and-ready voice. The only criticism I'd level at the live CD (and it's a bit of a personal hobby horse) is that there's too much "transducer" and not enough "acoustic" in the guitar sound.

"Crimson Moon" (not the late-period Marc Bolan song!) is the only new offering here - released in June, 2000. It is, apart from a totally out-of-character tartan aberration on a thing called "Caledonia" - not the Dougie MacLean anthem - excellent, showing that our Bert is still firing on all cylinders and need fear young upstarts not a jot. There's more electric guitar and the lazy title track nods affectionately and I suspect deliberately to fellow-Scot John Martin. The slurred vocals and slap-guitar are pure Martin, who no doubt owes an influence or two to Jansch - so it's nice to imagine that the process works both ways! There's a cracking and very Janschesque version of Robin Williamson's "October Song", although the extraordinary poetry isn't highlighted with quite the same firmness as in Dick Gaughan's recent revisit of the song (What's going on? The House Band also tackled this one recently! It's been around for decades - what's caused the revival?).

The traditional "Omie Wise" gets Bertified, with a very effective electric guitar wail to add to the eeriness and atmosphere. In the final track, Bert has a bit of fun with an affectionate take on "Singing the Blues" - where his lazy, throw-away vocal style is perfect - just perfect. So - do we need more Bert Jansch anthologies? There have been several such already ... "Dazzling Stranger" has the advantage that it covers his entire career to date and has 44 tracks (including two from "Crimson Moon"). It may not, therefore, include your favourite from the early years (No "Courting Blues", for example - another good adolescent's seduction song!).

The live album would make a nice gig souvenir and "Crimson Moon" itself merely carries on the quality, adds an inevitable maturity and shows a wider stylistic range. It's been a remarkable career - so far.

Alan Murray

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