It’s now widely believed that Bert’s 40+-year recording career was, artistically speaking, pretty much consistent throughout; but this was not always apparent at the time, and as far as public perception was concerned Bert’s presence came and went, with some albums unaccountably getting more profile or coverage than others. And sometimes an album would be hailed as a comeback, when in truth Bert hadn’t been away anywhere! – one such phase appeared to be the mid-’90s, with the release of the 1995 album When The Circus Comes To Town. Living In The Shadows is an apt choice, then, for the title of this really useful four-disc set, which collects together in one convenient package the vast majority of Bert’s studio output from the ’90s (the three albums The Ornament Tree, When The Circus Comes To Town and Toy Balloon, all freshly remastered to conform with the ongoing Earth Records Jansch reissue programme – but not Sketches, which had featured Peter Kirtley and Danny Thompson and which had appeared on German label Hypertension almost simultaneously with The Ornament Tree). Those three albums are placed alongside a whole disc of demos, outtakes and unreleased material from that decade going under the umbrella title of Picking Up The Leaves (a phrase taken from the lyric of the Circus album’s opening song Walk Quietly By). Its 14 tracks have been curated by Bert’s son Adam from Bert’s own personal collection.
The studio sets unarguably represent prime Jansch, but for me most especially treasurable is The Ornament Tree, which presents Bert in strong voice with a fabulous team of musicians (including Maggie Boyle, Steve Tilston, Richard Curran and latter-day Pentangle colleagues Peter Kirtley and Nigel Portman-Smith) on a collection of material predominantly (though not exclusively) drawn from Sean O’Boyle’s book The Irish Song Tradition but also revisiting (from Moonshine) The January Man. This lineup was magic, and the chemistry between Bert and his fellow-musicians produced a gem of an album that ranks with Bert’s very finest hours, yet has remained a curiously neglected masterpiece within the canon.
When The Circus Comes To Town comprised a batch of particularly strong new material that felt like Bert was carrying on where his best work of the ’60s had left off. He was comfortable with his talent (having road-tested most of the material already, too) and widely viewed as at the top of his game. Even the more strange, then, that all but four of the album’s songs were to swiftly disappear from Bert’s live set-lists thereafter. Toy Balloon appeared in 1998, and represented the fruits of a further intensive bout of songwriting; it was a slightly patchy affair compared with its predecessor however, with a few tracks compromised by over-instrumentation (sax, rock guitar, harmonica and rhythm section). Highlights of the collection were probably the delicate title song, the reflective Paper Houses (written five or six years earlier yet not previously recorded) and an insightful cover of (My Name Is) Carnival by Jackson C. Frank.
Fine though the studio albums are, however, they’re a “known quantity”, so to speak, and therefore it’s the fourth disc that will doubtless prove the jewel in the crown for most prospective purchasers. It would have been helpful for the booklet to have provided recording dates for the disc’s 14 tracks, but it’s acknowledged that the duets with former Pentangle colleague John Renbourn – a pair of takes of Untitled Instrumental II – date from the first couple of years of the decade, when a duo reunion album was mooted and the two men undertook a small number of collaborative gigs and a TV appearance (but no Bert & John II came to pass). The Circus album material yields three demos and two alternate versions, all the more revealing here in their suitably stark and unadorned setting. The first of the Untitled Instrumentals may well also originate from this time, while Lily Of The West had appeared on Live At The 12-Bar and Fool’s Mate was a timely foretaste of a song that was later to appear on Crimson Moon right at the end of the decade.
Arguably the gems of this fourth disc, though, are three hitherto unreleased compositions – Another Star, Little Max and the Dylanesque Merry Priest, all typically oblique and gently thought-provoking Jansch creations, intriguing miniatures in song that constitute almost subliminal invitations to listen. However, Paper Houses aside, this disc contains no material from Toy Balloon. But most tantalisingly, the disc is referred to as having been “compiled from a pool of many … recordings from the 1990s” – so may we hope for the release of more such in due course, I wonder?
Jansch biographer Colin Harper’s booklet notes are great at setting each album into context, but I would have expected (well, hoped) that such a vital reissue of these albums would be accompanied by the songs’ texts and personnel and composition credits that came with the original releases (The Ornament Tree was particularly well endowed in this respect, and Toy Balloon contained full lyrics, although Circus was more scantly documented, much in the manner of a handbill). In general presentation terms though, the whole package attractively conforms to the house-style and standard of Earth’s Jansch reissue programme.
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