Comprising six full albums and bonus tracks, all well remastered and housed inside the box in individually slip-cased mini-repros of the original LP sleeves. Plus a 24-page booklet setting the scene of those now far-off days that includes a sizeable chunk of memorabilia from the Folk Forum of Melody Maker and other sources. They’ve done a good job.
This was the era during which John Renbourn emerged as a scorchingly talented guitarist, with a diverse range of sources and influences – particularly Davy Graham, Wizz Jones, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie Johnson – before slowly getting diverted in a faux Elizabethan direction.
The three Renbourn solo albums here are his eponymously titled Transatlantic debut, its follow-up Another Monday and the oddly titled Sir John Alot Of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & Ye Grene Knyghte. Another Monday is the best of that trio: gobsmacking though his playing was on his debut compared with most other things around at the time, it had got much more assured by his second outing and his rather haphazard singing in a notably dodgy London-American accent was slightly more on the case too. The oboe on One For William is also rather nicer than the flute on the next album, Sir John Alot… by which time he’d abandoned singing altogether.
In truth, the move into mock-Tudor tracks on Sir John Alot… wasn’t appealing to the ears of my circle at the time and they haven’t got that much better over the years since: the bluesier instrumental pieces like Seven Up, Transfusion and Sweet Potato remain the standouts. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the “Sixties albums” title on the can, I’d have put 1971’s Faro Annie in here instead, his excellent solo return to the earlier type of song sources with guest vocals from Dorris Henderson – read on – on three tracks. It would have fitted much better overall.
This 1965/66 period was when the whole British acoustic guitar revolution, seeded by Davy Graham & Alexis Korner’s 3/4AD EP, kicked into gear. Bert Jansch was already making his mark as a solo guitarist/ songwriter and he and Renbourn became a musical item, the most influential players around. It must have been a no brainer for Transatlantic to commission the Bert & John LP of mostly improvised instrumental duets, plus a couple of Bert-voiced tracks, that’s included in this box. It emerged around the same time as Bert’s Jack Orion album of traditional songs and some major elements of Led Zeppelin started with those two records. It was probably around then that somebody started calling the Jansch/ Renbourn guitar style “folk baroque” and it became quite the thing for a few years.
Jacqui McShee made her team debut on Another Monday’s Lost Lover Blue, putting three-fifths of the Pentangle-to-come into place. It reminds us that John was often better as an accompanist than as a singer in his own right. That’s really proven by the other two CDs in the box – his two LPs accompanying black American singer Dorris Henderson, who had moved to the UK around 1964 (after having previously appeared doing backing vocals on some legendary Lord Buckley recordings).
The first of them, There You Go, had appeared on Columbia around a month before John’s Transatlantic debut, and I well remember buying it in Dobell’s the week it came out, off the back of rave press in Folk Scene magazine, and being blown away. Anybody who likes Rhiannon Giddens’ singing will find an affinity with Dorris’ voice, I imagine. It’s such a classic, another significant release of the era that produced Shirley Collins & Davy Graham’s Folk Roots, New Routes. Nowhere as near well known, it remains a lifelong favourite for me.
As the booklet admits, the Dorris’n’John 1967 follow-up, Watch The Stars, also included here, probably got unfairly sidelined by the hullabaloo surrounding the emergence of Pentangle – or just as likely that it came out on Fontana, who really weren’t very on the ball. Shame: it didn’t have the surprise factor of the first, but was very good too.
For newcomers learning about the era, this set is essential. For Renbourn completists who don’t own the two Dorris records, take your earlier CDs down the charity shop and get this instead: those two albums plus the booklet make it all worth it. And if you’ve already got the lot, why are you reading this review anyway, smartarse?!
Main photo: Dorris Henderson & John Renbourn (Brian Shuel)