Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Davey Graham

Davey Graham with special guest John Renbourn
Support from Alex Neilson and Ben Reynolds.
Oran Mor
Sunday 24th September

Hot diggity, if that's not one of the greatest bills you'll ever see then slap me with a kipper and call me Shirley. Seeing the great Davey Graham is a rare enough treat, but to have him supported by John Renbourne and Neilson and Reynolds is off the hook! Renbourne's recent gig in Glasgow with Peter Rowan was a joy. Indeed, he enjoyed himself so much he asked to come back and support his hero. Neilson, percussionist extraordnaire and outer reaches interpreter of folk song, will be accompanied by avant guitarist Reynolds, bringing together innovators old and new.

My preview of the gig is in the new issue of The List. A sub seems to have lopped off the end of one of my sentences without fixing the construction, but you can read my original version here...

Lauded by Bert Jansch, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, Davey Graham is the guitar hero’s guitar hero. But despite his revolutionary impact on acoustic guitar playing and British folk music in the early 1960s, Graham has remained a relatively obscure figure. So it’s cause for celebration that he has recently returned to public performance.

Born to a Guyanan mother and Scottish father, Graham was never one to limit his horizons. As a teenager in London he absorbed blues, jazz, folk and classical music. In the early 1960s he travelled to Morocco, where he discovered African music, and devised the groundbreaking DADGAD tuning.

It was thanks to British blues godfather Alexis Korner that Graham had his first real breakthrough. For the young John Renbourn (appearing as Graham’s special guest in Glasgow) and his future partner in psych-folk legends Pentangle, Bert Jansch, hearing the guitarist “changed everything”.

“Alexis and Davey did an EP together which had ‘Angi’ on it. It’s why Bert and I sounded like we did. Davey was our idol.”

The solo instrumental ‘Angi’, released in 1962, became Graham’s signature tune and a rite of passage for aspiring guitarists. Jansch recorded a version for his debut album and in 1966 the tune crossed over to a mass audience via Simon & Garfunkel.

Two albums Graham made in 1964 stand as his most lasting achievements. Folk Routes, New Routes, a collaboration with the great Shirely Collins, is a revelation. Graham provides remarkably inventive yet sympathetic accompaniments to Collins’ starkly beautiful readings of English traditionals like ‘Nottamun Town’ and ‘Reynardine’, his jazzy flourishes and vaguely Middle Eastern inflections adding new dimensions to these ancient songs.

His own album of that year, Folk, Blues And Beyond, was more eclectic still with Graham looking towards not only American jazz and blues, but Eastern European, North African and Indian music.
Although Graham would continue to cut important albums throughout the 1960s, subsequent decades saw him performing and recording infrequently, his already erratic behaviour exacerbated by drug problems.
Recent years, however, have seen his albums reissued, bringing him belated recognition and a new audience.
No-one can be sure exactly what to expect from a Graham performance. But as Bert Jansch testifies, that’s the beauty of his approach: "He's completely unpredictable and the audience will be treated to wherever his mind is at that moment… But I've never been less than blown away by his playing.”


I'll have a stall at Oran Mor on Sunday. Do say hello!

Monday, September 04, 2006

John Renbourn, Peter Rowan, Oran Mor, Glasgow, Tues 5 Sep

British Folk Legend meets the Bluegrass Master!

For one night only! Major cult bluegrass artist and Grammy-award winner, Peter Rowan(Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys), shares the stage with legendary virtuoso British guitarist, John Renbourn (Pentangle).

Truly unmissable!

I'll be there selling Beard, and the good people from Volcanic Tongue will also have a stall to flog their wares.

Tues 5th September
Doors 8pm
Tickets £12 from Tickets Scotland and

I had the pleasure of meeting John at the Green Man Festival. Here's what happened...

I introduce myself to John Renbourn after his rapturously received set at the Green Man festival in Wales. He’s cleary buzzing. “That was fucking brilliant!”

Indeed it was. His warm, unassuming stage manner belies his playful virtuosity and invention. We’ve been treated to traditional folk songs, jazz numbers, Jackson C Frank’s harrowing Run The Blues, and perhaps most affecting of all, a piece that begins with him riffing on Scottish folk tune The Dark Island, before shifting into an old hymn and finally morphing into a calypso. “Don’t ask me why it does that, it just does,” he offers to an awed crowd. And does it work? Of course: beautifully.

Afterwards an old friend who lives locally and has come along for the show remarks that the last time he saw John play, half the audience wouldn’t have been born. Yet they were giving him a standing ovation and demanding an encore. Unfortunately a broken string and tight stage times mean he’s unable to come back for more.

Thoroughly good natured and down to earth, Renbourn has driven to the festival in his Volvo, guitars and suitcases in the boot. He gives me a lift down to the backstage cafĂ© where I, shameless as ever, produce a copy of Beard. He’s delighted by the pictures of his old friend Shirley Collins.
“Oh that’s lovely.”
He recalls playing with her in the ‘60s.
“She made an album with Davey Graham (Folk Routes New Routes) but she couldn’t handle him because he was off his head on drugs all the time so I would back her up instead!”

I haven’t brought my unreliable Dictaphone along, so it’s time to call on my extremely rusty shorthand. He’s kind enough to pause between answers while I furiously scribble everything down. Glancing at my spidery scrawl he smiles. “I hope you’ll be able to read all that later!” Well, so far so good.

From Wales, John is travelling to Rome, then Marseilles, before crossing the Atlantic to perform at the American Lute Society (Early music has always been one of Renbourn’s key interests and in the ‘80s he took a degree in the subject). Later this year he’s playing some gigs with Incredible String Band co-founder Robin Williamson.

He struggles to recall the rest of his itinery. “I can’t think too far ahead because I’m actually officially retired,” he chuckles. Well, if this is retirement, long may it run.

Flash forward to this week and he’s playing Glasgow, sharing a stage with bluegrass guitarist Peter Rowan. The two musicians complement each other well. Renbourn has never been a purist, combining folk with jazz, blues, early music and whatever else takes his fancy. And while Rowan may have earned his stripes playing with the father of bluegrass Bill Monroe, he’s no fundamentalist, joining the dots between Appalachia, the cotton fields, New Orleans and even Jamaica.

“I’ve only seen (Peter Rowan) a few times at festivals. I’ve known about him for a long time because of Bill Monroe, who’s absolute royalty. Years ago I met a guy who made beautiful guitars. It took him years to make me one – the only other person who had one was Peter Rowan.

“I’ve never met him but I’d love to play with him. He’s done some great things. Last time I saw him he was playing with Muck O’Connor and Jerry Douglas. Those guys - just ridiculous talent, amazing.”

As a teenager in the 1950s, Renbourn played skiffle and classical guitar.

“Then skiffle morphed into R n B. The big guy on the scene who we thought was really good was Alexis Korner. He played acoustic and mentored the young Davey Graham, and that changed everything.

“When I started there was such an enormous pressure from the trad camp. I found it oppressive. They were rigid, not very progressive. I found it difficult to cope with and I’m proud I’m not one of them.

Combining folk with blues, jazz, Arabic and Indian music, Graham threw open the possibilities for acoustic music, inspiring Renbourn and his friend Bert Jansch to follow their own paths.

“Alexis and Davey did an album together which had Anjii on it. It’s why me and Bert sounded like that. Bert is equally as inventive as Davey though, we weren’t simply copying him. But Davey was our idol.”

John and Bert’s innovative psych-folk group Pentangle began as a way of hanging out with Korner.

“Alexis liked to smoke dope and play guitar. It was a good chance to hear him. The idea was to get a band together to play these all nighters.”

More than just the sum of their parts, Pentangle created an uncanny, often eerie, sometimes funky, blend of folk, jazz, rock and psych.
In the US they played with Grateful Dead.
“That’s when Jerry Garcia got idea to play acoustic music, “ Renbourn adds.

I ask if he’s aware of some of the young artists who are drawing fresh inspiration from the music of Renbourn and his contemporaries. He mentions a few modern day folkies but is generally not so up on the indie-folk and New Weird America acts performing at Green Man. He’s intrigued when I mention Jack Rose as a guitarist in the vein of the mercurial John Fahey.

“I knew Fahey. Not a lot of people really knew Fahey though,” he reflects.

Renbourn finds the idea of a new folk revival strange.

“I’m travelling al the time. There’s always been an interest. But yes, it is incredible that those so young and innocent should be listening to this!”

With a 2CD anthology in the works - “It’s part of series in which everyone else is already dead!” - perhaps Renbourn will gain wider recognition. As the Times’ Peter Paphides puts it, “Bert Jansch was the hip one in Pentangle, but it was Renbourn who most fluidly assimilated folk, jazz, blue and early music into one inimitable style. He’s one of our most underappreciated guitarists.”

Let’s hope he remains underappreciated no longer.