Friday 6 June 2014

Wizz Jones & John Renbourn

Band on the Wall, Manchester, June 5

Wizz Jones is something of a hero in this household, chiefly because of a 54 year-old television clip unearthed on youtube: - 

Woody Guthrie lives! If Wizz Jones’ guitar doesn’t actively kill fascists, it’s certainly seen off a few Torquay councillors! 

“I’m only interested in playing the guitar and travelling,” Jones told Alan Whicker on Tonight in 1960. Faithful to the beat philosophy, Jones busked his way around Europe and Africa, before returning to the UK. The best of his generation were all travellers and free spirits. Think of Clive Palmer, Andy Irvine, Allan Taylor, Anne Briggs. Whereas the adoption of a beatnik lifestyle in the States led to jazz, UK beatniks tended to gravitate towards folk. Or, more accurately, folk and blues. In all these cases, records were incidental, or positively accidental, by-products of the lifestyle. Good beatniks are determined anti-careerists. 

Wizz’s clear vitality, not to mention his shock of unruly grey hair, testify to the efficacy of a life spent doing just what you love best. He plays ‘Song to Woody’, ‘Black Dog’ and ‘The Glory of Love’ and his own ‘Lucky the Man’, and roars them like a busker competing with the trains in the Paris Metro or the attractions of a bustling Marrakesh marketplace. He strikes every string very hard and sometimes shakes the guitar for added resonance. What Wizz lacks in finesse he gains in force. 

Which makes him the ideal partner for John Renbourn, who is exactly the opposite. 

The first song they share is Archie Fisher’s ‘The Mountain Rain’. This little beauty about vengeance killing demonstrates that Archie Fisher is a songwriter of the first rank. And its treatment - oddly lyrical given its grim nature - finds a perfect counterpart in Renbourn’s accompaniment, which is deft and light of touch. ‘Strollin’ Down the Highway’ closes the first set with a nod to the late, great Bert Jansch. 

During the break, I get Wizz to sign my copy of The Legendary Me

A vintage shot of John and Wizz 

The show is designed along symmetrical lines, so John Renbourn heads the second half with a short solo set. He opens with ‘Sweet Potato’, a tune by Booker T & The MGs he first essayed on Sir John Alot. The version tonight is less Gabor Szabo and more Tal Farlow, dare I say, as he treats Booker T’s groovy riff to a veritable chromatic blitz. 

‘The Snow That Melts the Soonest’ is his first vocal contribution and contains another shock. The distinctive wispy burr of old has been replaced by something deeper and more uncertain of pitch, prepared to settle for recitation if the melody presents too great a challenge. Or it may be that folk singing is not what he wants to do. Tonight he would rather be the hipster philosopher Mose Allison (who gets two songs, ‘Getting There’ and ‘You Can Count On Me To Do My Part’) or the fingerpicker Merle Travis (‘The Cannonball Rag’), whose exuberant virtuosity is in no way dimmed by the gentleness and delicacy of Renbourn’s delivery. ‘Great Dreams From Heaven’ channels both Ry Cooder and Joseph Spence. The voice is coming into focus now. It’s like meeting someone you may not have seen in years at an unexpected moment. The middle-aged, if not positively elderly, features of a stranger are, within moments, overlaid by the familiar, timeless outline of an old friend. By ‘Lord Franklin’, perhaps the best-loved Renbourn song of them all - here adorned with a blues paraphrase and some sumptuous extemporising - the contours are fully in place again. 

Dylan gets a second appearance with ‘Buckets of Rain’, featuring a relaxed vocal from Renbourn and a friendly exchange of fire between the guitarists. And Bert Jansch makes a return with ‘Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning’. Wizz takes lead vocals on the Jansch tunes, and Renbourn takes lead guitar, with the pair emulating the old relationship between Bert and John quite instinctively. 

With ‘Bad Influence’, the Robert Cray song, the pair are in danger of slipping into blues default mode. Actually, although I miss the baroque side of Renbourn’s genius, it’s none the worse for the casual nature of the music-making. It’s a pleasure to see two old-timers enjoy themselves so much, so the pleasure just multiplies. “Anyone would think we planned this,” Jones says at one point. “No,” replies Renbourn simply.  

‘Cocaine Blues’, complete with beatnik-inspired Tangiers reference, provides the encore.

John Renbourn and Bill Leader reunion, BOTW, June 5, 2014 (with the author looking on) 

Afterword, 9.4.15

The news about John Renbourn’s death (26 March, 2015), so close on the heels of the concert reviewed above, came as a shock indeed. Perhaps it counts as a good death, indeed: at the height of your powers and doing the thing you love best. I took the opportunity to request an interview, and subsequently found him charming, illuminating and high-spirited. I wonder, with hindsight, if it was what Dennis Potter, in his last interview, called “the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom” – that is the great joy of life vouchsafed to someone soon about to leave it – that tipped the interview, in places, into unreliability. But no, not unreliability. Subjectivity, I think. He might always have been like that. 

Anyway, you’ll have to wait until the book comes out, although some of the interview, or the aftermath of the interview, appeared in a later blog, Brought to Book II …  

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