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276: Leo Kottke, ‘Eggtooth’ (New Acoustic)

Posted by jeff on Dec 29, 2017 in New Acoustic, Song Of the week

Leo Kottke – ‘Even His Feet Look Sad’

Bert Jansch & John Renbourn – ‘Tic-Tocative’

Andy McKee & Don Ross – ‘The Thing That Came from Somewhere’

This week we’re going to try to sketch a portrait of a nebula of music–call it a style or a genre or whatever you like–that for the sake of convenience you can call it New Acoustic.

Or Fingerpicking. Or American Primitive. Or Folk Baroque. It’s been going on for threescore years, but still has no clearly defined history or borders (born in the early 1960s more or less simultaneously in the US and in the UK, with  almost no cross-pollination). Or even a name for heaven’s sake!

It even has a first cousin it’s easily confused with, Newgrass (Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, Mike Marshall, Edgar Meyer, as well as frequent visitors such as Jerry Garcia, Yo Yo Ma, Mark O’Connor and Dave Grisman).

Paul Simon, UK, 1965

Perhaps it’s best to explain New Acoustic by two examples that you probably know.
Remember Paul Simon’s guitar solo ‘Anji’ from the “Sounds of Silence” album?
Oh, I loved that song.
Remember Pentangle?
Oh, I loved Pentangle.
They’re New Acoustic.

But the whole thing is as hard to grab hold of as a passle of melted jello on a Georgia highway in the middle of a highway in the middle of the day in the middle of July. So anything I say here is based on the most superficial, off-the-cuff, unfounded lack of knowledge you can imagine. Just picture me on that Georgia highway trying to pick up the jello.

There’s tons and tons of all this stuff, so I’m just going to give you a link or two for each of the gents here. For a change, nothing exhaustive. You’ll have to do the legwork yourselves.

What can we say about it? Well, to a great degree it’s intelligent and sophisticated. virtuosic instrumental music (sans vocals), fingerpicked on a 6-string steel string guitar (or 12-string, or banjo), using old blues and country technique, often with open tuning, infused with influences from far abroad, such as Indian ragas.

Leo Kottke

Early US Fingerpicking

John Fahey (1939-2001) was a key figure “the first to demonstrate that the finger-picking techniques of traditional country and blues steel-string guitar could be used to express a world of non-traditional musical ideas — harmonies and melodies you’d associate with Bartok, Charles Ives, or maybe the music of India.” Here’s ‘Poor Boy Long Ways from Home’ from his seminal 1964 album “The Legend of Blind Joe Death”. Fahey established Takoma Records in the early 1960s, which kickstarted the careers of fingerpicking disciples Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho.

Leo Kottke (1945-) is perhaps the best-known card-carrying representative of New Acoustic. Despite near deafness and an insistence on staining his performances with vocals (which he acutely describes as “geese farts on a muggy day”), he’s had a long and fruitful career. If you’re interested in delving into this morass, Kottke’s probably the best place to start. I find him impressive, enjoyable, entertaining. I’d gladly go see him perform. Start with the 1971 “6 and 12 String Guitar”. But be sure you get to his brilliant, bizarre, hilarious rambling monologs.

 

Robbie Basho

Robbie Basho (1940-1986) is understandably less well-known than Kottke and Fahey, darker and more challenging. ‘Haunting’ is his epithet. Check out ‘Song of the Stallion’– somewhere between those two disparate Johnsons, Antony and the-, and Blind Willie. With a little bit of Shlomo Carlebach thrown in. A genuinely riveting weirdo.

Sandy Bull (1941-2001) was the subject of a very recent Song of The Week, and all the enthusiastic responses to it encouraged me to try to slop all this melted jello into a box. Sandy is even less well known than Basho, to whom he’s often compared. Because he’s even further down the garden path. Which is of course why I love him so.

Meanwhile, back in the Old Country—

Bert Jansch, John Renbourn

Early UK Fingerpicking

Davey Graham (1940-2008), shared with Basho and Bull a background in folk/blues and the eagerness of the ’60s psychedelic rockers to stretch out and incorporate unpredictable influences into his music. In 1961 he composed ‘Anji’, (covered by Bert Jansch in 1965 as ‘Angie’ and famously by Paul Simon in 1966).

Bert Jansch (1943-2011) is probably the best-known habitué of the New Acoustic world. Coming from a Scottish/English folk background, inspired by Graham, he in turn had a profound influence on people such as John Renbourn, Donovan, Paul Simon, Jimmy Page and Neil Young, who said that Jansch did for the acoustic guitar what Hendrix did for the electric. As with Kottke and many others, we usually try to avoid his vocals (‘Needle of Death’). He’s perhaps best known for leading Pentangle, together with his buddy John Renbourn. My personal favorite of Jansch is his uncategorizable, atypical 1979 LP, “Avocet”, one of my most listened-to albums over the years.

John Renbourn (1944-2015) began as a soloist, made a mark in pairings with Jansch in “Bert and John” (‘East Wind’), before they went on to form—

Pentangle, an acoustic folk-jazz ensemble with Jansch and Renbourn on acoustic guitars, Jacqui McShee in waifish vocals, the wonderful Danny Thompson on double bass and Tony Cox on drums. Almost everyone I know seems to have listened to them frequently in college.

And that just gets us up to 1968.

 

Duck Baker

And Then…

There have been generations of young explorers from Australia to Zimbabwe who can pick more notes than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill. I’ve far from mastered this list, but I’ll try to give you a few quick pointers:

John Martyn (1948-2009) – a major artist, not strictly of this school, but employing with great success in his own unique singer-songwriter style. Much recommended. SoTW 166

Duck Baker (b. 1949) – a quirky favorite of mine, he recorded an entire album of the music of Herbie Nichols, the greatest unknown jazz pianist of the 1950s. SoTW 91. That’s the kind of cosmic synchronicity that gives me a warm, gooey feeling.

Andy McKee

Phil Keaggy and Mike Pachelli (both b. 1951)

Dave Evans (b. 1953) – “Sad Pig Dance” is one fine album.

Tommy Emmanuel (b. 1955)

Brooks Williams (b. 1958) – likened to James Taylor, which ain’t a bad thing

Don Ross (b. 1960)

Jack Rose (1971)

Andy McKee (b. 1979) – new age wiz, 56 million hits on this little gem

James Blackshaw (b. 1981)

Those fingers just keep picking. I haven’t found enough meat on the bones of those fingers to delve into this ocean obsessively and exhaustively, as is my wont. With the possible exception of Sandy Bull (and of course John Martyn), I’ve never found it to be life-changing music. Entertainment, rather than High Art. But I do keep returning to it. I hope you find it appealing. If you find anything indispensable, do let me know.

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200: Bert Jansch, “Avocet”

Posted by jeff on Aug 22, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Bert Jansch — ‘Avocet’

bert-jansch-05

Scottish Warbler

Believe it or not, there are gullibles around the globe who think I possess some modicum of wisdom about music. Little do they know how little do I know. But I’ve been getting all these letters and calls beseeching, “Impart of your musical wisdom, O Jeff!” Well, who am I to deny these wisdom-starved throngs? Fasten your seatbelts, here comes:

There are different kinds of music.

Woo. Take a moment to digest that, I’ll wait. Ready? And to support this revolutionary hypothesis, I’m going to introduce you to one of the differentest pieces of music I know: “Avocet” (\ˈa-və-ˌset\) by Bert Jansch, 1979.

Avocet

Avocet

Everyone sings the praises of great music. I’d like to pay tribute here to background music. But great, great background music.

I always get befuddled when making my list of 10 Greatest Albums. ‘Great’ in what sense? Artistic achievement? The list could be comprised of ten early Dylan albums and nothing else. Ok, so we limit it to one album by each artist. My list usually includes “John Wesley Harding” and Randy Newman’s first album, both of which I admire inestimably and listen to—well, almost never. When’s the last time you sat through one of the great, whiney, headachy Dylan masterpieces from 1964-1970?

There are others on my list of Greatests that I listen to all the time. “Eli & the 13th Confession”—two or three times a year I go on a Laura binge. “Pet Sounds”? Monthly. “Astral Weeks“, James Taylor’s first, “The Band” – less often, but on occasion, yes.

Lapwing

Lapwing

I’ve probably listened more to Bill Evans’ unplumbable “Live at the Village Vanguard” over the last 20 years than any other album. Whichever Bach solo keyboard album I put on the list, often the Toccatas, is probably in second place. And sneaking into this illustrious company of great music oft-heard is an obscure album by a less-than-household name, an album no one would call anything but background music, is “Avocet”.

Glaswegian Jansch (1943-2011) was an charter member of the British folk scene in the mid-1960s, which included Davey Graham, Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson (of Fairport Convention), Donovan (here in a tribute to our Artist of The Week) and Paul Simon (yes, the very same) and Bert’s BBF John Renbourne. They played a lot of annoying Celtic ballads, dabbled in confessional singer-songwriter material (‘Needle of Death’), blues (‘Dissatisfied Blues’), jazz (Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat’), art music, and most notably ‘folk baroque’ (‘Stepping Stones’)—a new fingerpicked acoustic-guitar folk-jazz amalgam of all the above that still resonates today.  This style/genre found its most prominent commercial expression in Pentangle, when Jansch and Renbourne added an acoustic bass, brushed drums and a chick singer with a plaintive voice, an exotic name, long blonde hair, and filled basketball stadia with pot-addled American college students.

Bittern

Bittern

There’s a wealth of this material. Jansch himself released an album or two a year for decades, starting in 1965. A good starting point for the whole scene is the 1968 “Jansch and Renbourne”. Which is sometimes called “Bert & John”. And sometimes “Bert Jansch and John Renbourne”. Slovenly Brits. Best of breed may be “The Pentangle”.

The most famous cut from this pool is unquestionably, Paul Simon’s ‘Anji’, which he learned from Jansch’s ‘Angie’, which he learned from the original ‘Anji’ by Davey Graham.

I’ve struggled long and hard to master this period. I even read a book about it, one of the most poorly-written musical biographies I’ve ever encountered (way too much of my reading material is this kind of stuff). But it eludes me, perhaps because I have so little patience for the warbly, whiny, wimp Olde Folke material that dominates it.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

But when I go after an artist, he’d better watch out. On my way to not really grasping Bert Jansch, I chewed my way earnestly through 20-25 of his solo albums and collaborations. Which is how I came to trip over “Avocet”, smack plump in the middle of his career, enthusiastically ignored by the British music press and by even Bert’s fans. But it’s become a best buddy of mine, a mainstay on my music player, a go-to album for a myriad of situations.

This is point where I’m supposed to describe the music itself. C’mon, Jeff, you’ve done it 199 times already. Well, this one’s hard. “Avocet” is different. The instrumentation will give you a hint: guitar, piano, mandocello (WTF?), violin (well, fiddle), flute, acoustic bass. It’s gently hippie-trippie. It’s translucent and nebular. It’s airborne. It’s avian.

Osprey

Osprey

In fact, each of the six pieces is titled after a water bird.

The music is as hard to pin down as—well, as an ‘Avocet’ (the 18-minute title cut), which is an aquatic bird recently returned to Britain on reclaimed land which was returned to salt marsh to make difficulties for any landing German invaders.  As elusive as a ‘Lapwing’, a wading crested plover. As shy as a ‘Bittern’.  As vividly vibrant as a ‘Kingfisher’. As dignified as an ‘Osprey’. As loveable as a ‘Kittiwake‘.

This music cheers me up a little when I’m sad. It saddens me a little when I’m too happy. It provides a warm glow in the room when my focus is elsewhere. I’m aware of the ambience, but it never intrudes. It’s music I can fall asleep to – intelligent, tasteful, satisfying background music.

Kittiwake

Kittiwake

Outstanding background music (how’s that for an oxymoron?). Ridiculously good background music. Sublime background music. If I were a meditator, this is the music I’d use.

Because we live in this world. Not the world of high drama, but the world of the mundane, with all its multifarious moments of boredom and preoccupation and work and running errands. Life is short, but the days are long. And we need a soundtrack for real life, too. Not great music; just sincerely good music. Like what we wish for most of our days.

So here you go. Thanks, Bert.

 

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