March 23, 2018

1960s British folk quintet, Pentangle, get a new boxed set

Pentangle (1969)

Cherry Red release includes all six LPs and 45 bonus tracks

Along with Fairport Convention, Pentangle were the top British folk-rock group of the late 1960s and early 1970s. True, folk-rock was a label Pentangle were uncomfortable with, and there wasn’t nearly as much rock as folk in their sound. There was also a lot of jazz and blues, and bits of gospel, world music, and even pop. But if you have to give Pentangle a label, folk-rock fits them about as well as any. It’s certainly not just folk music, although the band boasted arguably the two best folk guitarists in Britain in Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, along with one of the best British folk singers (Jacqui McShee) and the stellar jazz-bluesy rhythm section of bassist Danny Thompson and Terry Cox.

Pentangle recorded six LPs with their original lineup between 1968 and 1972 prior to breaking up in 1973 (though they sporadically reformed in different versions in later years). If a bit unnervingly uneven, these records were often exhilarating, and always as eclectic as any folk-based music then or since. All six of them are in the recent Cherry Red seven-CD box The Albums, which adds a whopping 54 bonus tracks, 22 of them previously unreleased. For all its heft, it doesn’t have everything the original lineup recorded (more on which later). But with the addition of all of these alternate takes, outtakes, live recordings, and their few non-LP singles, this is a bigger box than 2007’s four-CD The Time Has Come. It’s also more fully representative of the group, including as it does all of the studio and live sides they released before their 1973 split.

Pentangle fans devoted enough to spring for this box will naturally be most interested in the bonus cuts, as they’re likely to have all or most of the music from the original six LPs. Still, a broad overview of those six LPs — which form the basis of each of the seven CDs (seven because 1968’s Sweet Child was a double LP) — is helpful before getting into that nitty-gritty.

The quintet was undoubtedly at their best on their first three LPs, starting with 1968’s debut The Pentangle, which introduced a swinging, at times rocking acoustic blend that had never been heard on either side of the Atlantic. Their adaptations of the traditional folk songs “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” and “Bruton Town” both remained true to those standards’ spirit and made them far more exciting to non-purists than any previous versions. “Pentangling” was a good showcase for their instrumental virtuosity and ability to stretch and semi-improvise at some length without getting boring. “Hear My Call,” originally a more gospel-grounded Staple Singers tune, signified their willingness to put their stamp on more contemporary material, as well as (like many of their songs) forefront McShee’s soaring, pure vocals. Not every track was up to the level of these highlights, but it was an exciting, invigorating start.

Divided into a live recording (at London’s Royal Festival Hall on June 29, 1968) on its first disc and studio recordings for its second, Sweet Child was as eclectic as any folk-rock album, and indeed one of the most eclectic LPs of any kind from the late ‘60s. That’s particularly true of the live half, encompassing spirituals, Charles Mingus compositions, a Christmas song, blues, traditional British folk and original material. That doesn’t mean it found the group at their very best — the execution is sometimes a little dainty and restrained, though the audience seems to love every performance. The studio portion might not have been a big advance over their debut LP, but included a candidate for the best folk-rock instrumental in the mesmerizing “In Time,” with riveting interplay between Jansch and Renbourn, and the jazz-bluesish original “I’ve Got a Feeling,” another of McShee’s highwater marks.

Pentangle reached their peak on 1969’s Basket of Light, one of the greatest folk-rock albums. Nearly every track is bold and daring, yet concise and cutting, from the riveting, frenetic “Light Flight” (a small UK hit) and the stately rendition of the folk warhorse “Once I Had a Sweetheart” to the almost Gregorian “Lyke-Wake Dirge” and the bouncy original “Springtime Promises.” There’s even a successful mutation of the girl group hit “Sally Go Round the Roses.” There’s a sense of the musicians at the edge, taking risks with how far they could take British folk outside its boundaries with almost jazz-like instrumental interaction and adventurous vocal harmonies, but never so far as to abandon a folk core. Here’s also the place to mention that though McShee was their most prominent singer, Jansch added a lot to their balance with his earthier, bluesier vocal leads, on both backup and occasional lead.

As with so many bands, that breathtaking peak couldn’t be maintained. Like Fairport Convention, Pentangle retreated from their excursions into new territory, instead turning to traditional folk for the bulk of their repertoire, starting with 1970’s Cruel Sister. Of course, they had always done a lot of traditional folk, but now they were doing it more traditionally and with modernized folk-rock arrangements. Perhaps fatigue was draining their reserves of original material; Jansch and Renbourn were maintaining active solo recording careers, even as Pentangle kept to a hectic studio and concert schedule.

Cruel Sister and its follow-ups, Reflection (1971) and Solomon’s Seal (1972), have their champions, including the writers who penned the essays on these LPs in this box’s extensive booklet. And they do include some good tracks — Solomon’s Seal’s doleful “No Love Is Sorrow,” featuring a dual lead vocal from Jansch and McShee, is one of their most haunting original songs. They also took the unusual, even reckless, step of putting an 18-minute version of “Jack Orion” on Cruel Sister. They continued to add unusual touches to their acoustic base, including some sitar and occasional electric guitar. But it’s not just the repertoire that’s less interesting on these final three albums. The execution isn’t as lively or imaginative either, almost as though the early-‘70s burnout referred to in some Pentangle literature spilled over into their studio sessions.

Pentangle fans already know about these albums, even if they might not always agree with my assessments. They’ll be more curious about the material on this box they’re likely not to have been heard, starting with the 22 unreleased tracks. Yet, like many bonus items, they’re more interesting than electrifying, including quite a few alternate or live versions that aren’t too different from, and/or aren’t as good as, the familiar ones. Some are more interesting than others, starting with two from their first studio session in August 1967, “I Got a Feeling” (re-recorded for Sweet Child as “I’ve Got a Feeling”) and “Market Song.” In contrast to the Sweet Child version, the first attempt at “I Got a Feeling” is clumsy, almost pop-blues-rock, indicating that it took them a while to get comfortable with both their nascent folk-rock style and more at ease in the studio itself. “Market Song” is also unrefined (with an uncharacteristic electric blues-rock guitar solo), but they’d find their feet soon enough.

Other highlights from the unreleased batch include a quite good full-band version of Cox’s spooky “Moon Dog,” done on Sweet Child as a Cox solo track with just vocals and spare percussion. The full-band arrangement, in contrast, features McShee’s vocals, and comes closer to an equal mix of folk and rock than most of their work, though the sound quality is a bit lower than usual, deriving (according to the liners) “from an imperfect tape source.” Three cuts from an Aberdeen concert on March 26, 1970 include live versions of their early standouts “Light Flight” and “Pentangling.” The Reflection outtake “Wondrous Love,” an American Shaker hymn, has a mesmerizing somber, almost incantantional feel (with what sounds like a faint fuzz guitar in the background) that would have made it a standout on the LP had it been included. At the less impressive end of the spectrum, three November 1972 live numbers from Guildford Civic Hall were taken from an audience recording, and suffer from substandard sound quality.

The 32 other tracks on this box that did not appear on the original versions of the first six Pentangle LPs are likewise not all that notable, at least relative to what was cleared for official release. You’d have to be a pretty big Pentangle fan to already have all of these cuts on other releases, but quite a few have been out as bonus tracks on the 2001 Castle CD editions of their first three albums; on Renbourn’s 1972 solo LP Faro Annie; or on the box The Time Has Come. The obvious standouts are the three that originally appeared as non-LP tracks on singles, including their ingratiating 1968 debut 45 “Travellin’ Song” (dressed up with strings, although unadorned live versions are easily findable on video, as well as on one of the bonus concert items for Sweet Child). The 1969 B-sides “Cold Mountain” and “I Saw An Angel” are here too (as bonuses on the Basket of Light disc), and are decent cuts in line with their late-‘60s sound, though not lost gems.

It’s interesting to hear these extras to round out our picture of Pentangle’s prolific first half-dozen years, but sometimes it’s obvious why they didn’t come out at the time. In common with some other folk-rock groups, their attempts at straight blues could be lame. The live version of “Travellin’ Song” from Festival Hall, if it was considered for inclusion on Sweet Child, likely failed to pass inspection when Jansch and McShee awkwardly navigated some of their vocal harmonies.

It seems improbable that a 115-track collection could miss a fair amount of Pentangle recordings from this period, but such is the case, though fortunately those are easily available elsewhere. For starters, there are CDs of BBC broadcasts from 1968-72 on Live at the BBC and the two-disc The Lost Broadcasts 1968-1972 (which has all but six of the tracks from Live at the BBC). The box set The Time Has Come has a bit more than a CD’s worth of additional live, TV, and soundtrack recordings that don’t appear on this newer box. Recordings from their show at the Berkeley Community Theatre on May 29, 1970 are very good, and have long been in circulation (and can currently be heard on And we’re not even counting a fair amount of live footage of the group from TV programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s, much of which hasn’t made it to DVD.

The Cherry Red The Albums box, however, has the core of their legacy, embellished with almost as many extras as could fit on the CDs (with the exception of the relatively short Solomon’s Seal disc, which adds just three live tracks). The CD-sized box has an 88-page booklet with a wealth of recording information and vintage photos and memorabilia, along with many quotes from interviews with Jansch, Renbourn, and McShee. There’s also a detailed chronology, although the individual album essays are uneven. The discs are housed in individual sleeves duplicating the original artwork, including the gatefolds that some of the LPs boasted. It adds up to a worthy, though not quite all-inclusive, monument to the legacy of a band whose brilliantly British folk-rock blend has never been matched, or even replicated.


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