Bert JanschFrom the Blackwater Side

Bert Jansch | Heartbreak (Omnivore)

To many, he was the guitarist’s guitarist, Bert Jansch was. A major figure of the British traditional folk scene, Jansch’s notoriety goes back to the early ‘60s, when he gained fame as a founder member of the folk-jazz group Pentangle, alongside another highly regarded guitarist, John Renbourn, and singer Jacqui McShee, bassist Danny Thompson and percussionist Terry Cox. On numerous solo albums that dug deep and subtly modernized the roots of the old tunes of the British Isles as well as their cousins of the American blues and jazz tradition, the Scottish-born Jansch defined a hard-plucking, deeply voiced steel- and nylon-stringed guitar that has wielded enormous influence, judging from the testimony of the varied likes of Jimmy Page, Neil Young, Nick Drake, Donovan, Johnny Mars and Devendra Banhart. (This rather self-effacing giant always denied it, but his singing was distinctive as well, a naturally rustic, nasally style that suited to a tee the old songs in which he staked his highest claims.)

You get a nice sense of the man’s unique persona, impeccable playing chops and remarkable taste in repertoire from Heartbreak, a very special item just out on the collectors label Omnivore. It’s a remastered limited-edition LP and two-CD set of Jansch’s 1981 album, and, ardent Jansch fans should note, the first pressing of the LP is issued on 1,500 pieces of clear vinyl; the two-CD collection includes the original Heartbreak album along with 14 previously unreleased tracks recorded at a live show during the same period at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica.

Heartbreak’s got a touching story behind it. It was a labor of love, produced by two rabid young Jansch fans named John and Rick Chelew, who’d grown up with his music and, after seeing him play in Los Angeles and San Francisco –– and shyly approaching him for a handshake –– well, one thing led to another, and the pair persuaded their hero Jansch to come to L.A. and make a new album; they borrowed money from their mom for the recording.

Bert Jansch died on October 5, 2011: the last of a certain kind of breed. He was a no-bull man who kept it real, didn’t suffer fools gladly, or at all, really, and whether he was haunted by this, that or the other, who knows. He was from the north country, which he loved, and, like the great English folk musician Ralph McTell says in Heartbreak’s liner notes, in Jansch’s music you felt the warm sweetness of the cold and damp. At the time of Heartbreak’s recording, Jansch had been for a long while suffering from an addiction to booze, which only exacerbated his natural-born taciturnity and made the sessions a slightly tense experience for the brothers Chelew. Yet they and Jansch reached an agreement that the time was right, and maybe now or never, for Jansch to pull himself together and show the world once again the magic that only he could do.

Which he surely did, praise be, in these superbly played and chosen songs, including old faves like “Blackwater Side” and “Wild Mountain Thyme” and Janschified takes on “If I Were a Carpenter,” and even a black-humoredly bleak “Heartbreak Hotel,” and with a few electrified tracks with guest guitarist Albert Lee that prove that Jansch’s roots-based style, feel and attitude were well-suited for more contemporary musical frameworks.

Jansch rose to the occasion on Heartbreak, indeed the sessions seemed to trigger something within him, something about how he knew he had it in him all along, and that there was little time left for wasting his gift.

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