Wednesday, July 02, 2008


I got up to the Royal Festival Hall in London on Sunday 29th June to see the first date of the Pentangle tour (the original line-up is back together for the time being). I'd got a ticket months ago, only realised days before that the event was timed to be 40 years to the day after their famous RFH concert which makes up the live half of their Sweet Child double album.

Pentangle, about 40 years ago
Pentangle, about 40 years ago

The couple of hours leading up to the gig are worth recalling. I'd met up with Vicky and, sitting in St. James Park, we heard a brass band in the distance. We went to check them out - a modern sort of brass band, playing populist film-score music to people in deckchairs - not really our thing, but good to see they were there. Wandering off, we noticed a pub with the very odd name "Green Man and French Horn", so went in to have a look. There was a trio of Irish session musicians playing tunes by the door. We requested "The Mason's Apron", and they happily obliged to play it, rather well (demonstrating in the process that they really knew their stuff). Heading over the Thames on the Hungerford footbridge, we encountered a troupe of buskers playing firey music on battered accordions and trumpets (one of them was drumming with sticks, very effectively, on a plastic waterbutt). I couldn't really describe it, but something made me guess they were either from Argentina or Chile. Intense, vibrant sounds. Just beyond them, we could hear some groovy electronic beats - someone was having a free party on the tiny bit of tidal Thames-side beach under the Festival Pier - decks set up and everything, playing mellow-ish housey techno (or technoey house? sounded good, anyway). We had five minutes to join the party (it felt very free, spontaneous, international - not just some little clique, but like the whole world was welcome to rave peacefully on the shores of Father Thames), then clamber back up onto the South Band and hurry to our seats in the RFH.

Pentangle shuffled on to rapturous applause. When it had died down a bit, Jacqui McShee mumbled into the mic "Yer all mad!", and then they launched into Anne Briggs' "The Time Has Come". That, and the first half of the second song, "Light Flight", were just slightly wobbly - not a "disaster" as the Guardian's review claimed (understandably, there were some nerves involved in such a momentous occasion), but still a joy to hear them playing. From then on it was sublime. It's hard to separate out highlights, as the whole thing (two hour-long sets) was a total thrill, and I could have easily listened to another two or three hours of them playing. They're all as good, if not better, than ever, and it did seem as if time had been suspended since the early 70's, like they never stopped playing together, there was such an ease and exploratory delight in the music (it makes you wonder what they'd be like if they had kept it together for 40 years!!).

Pentangle, more recently
The very same Pentangle, more recently (2007 BBC Folk Awards)

A roadie brought out a sitar near the end of the first set. John Renbourn prepared to sit cross-legged on the stage ("The moment of truth!" announced Jacqui), and then they launched into a wonderful "House Carpenter" and finished the set with "Cruel Sister". The second set began with "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme" and included a trippy, jammed-out version of "Bruton Town". The latter provided a glimpse of where they could take things if they keep playing together, as well as the reason why Jerry Garcia declared them to be his favourite British band in the early 70's (in Signposts to New Space). There was "A Maid That's Deep in Love", a jazzy-interlude where Jacqui left the stage while the other four played "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat". Also, "I've Got a Feeling", it was explained, was "nicked" from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, not from Davy Graham as they'd originally believed (he nicked it first - the melody, anyway - and Bert Jansch had written some lyrics). They encored with a crystalline "Willie o' Winsborough" and then the gospel-y sing-a-long "May the Circle Be Unbroken". It was only on that last one that Renbourn sang at all. I would have liked to have heard him sing "Lord Franklin" (but then I've seen him do that in the back of a pub in Topsham, so I can't complain).

No gimmicks, no electric instruments, just a very tasteful backdrop of slowly shifting vari-colour lighting panels, and the sort of warmth, humour and humility you'd hope/expect from these five lovely musicians. Vicky really picked up on what an amazing bass player Danny Thompson is - and he really is the glue that holds it all together.

Musically loose, free, fresh, BEAUTIFUL. They got a well-deserved standing ovation. Couldn't have hoped for more. My mind was awash with Pentangle songs for days afterwards. THANKYOU PENTANGLE!


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