If there were ever a “musician’s musician,“ it was Bert Jansch (1943-2011). In the late ‘60s, while America was in the midst of the psychedelic haze, there was a fascinating scene going on in England. This was the so-called “folk revival,” and included such bands as Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and Pentangle. Along with John Renbourn, Jansch was a founding member of Pentangle, and their catalog remains a rich source of pleasure for all music fans.
One of the hallmarks of Jansch’s career was his desire to record in whatever configuration suited the project. Whether it was in a group environment such as Pentangle, solo, or even (with Renbourn) in a duo setting, the man stayed busy throughout his life. By the way, Stepping Stones is the title of the album Jansch and Renbourn recorded as an acoustic duo, and it is a highlight of both men’s careers.
The newly remastered 30th anniversary edition of Jansch’s long out-of-print 1982 album Heartbreak has just been released by Omnivore Recordings, and is a marvelous tribute to the artist. In 1982, I was not yet hip to Jansch, so this release is basically brand new to me. One thing about the music of Jansch is that it was his, and his alone. You will not find any nods to the particular trends of the day on Heartbreak. In other words, have no fear, Jansch had no interest in synthesizers or drum machines at a time when they were all the rage.
As for my opening comment about the respect Jansch enjoyed from his fellow musicians, actions do speak louder than words. In addition to his own shimmering acoustic guitar, Jansch is joined on Heartbreak by Albert Lee, who had just gotten off the road after touring with Eric Clapton. Lee’s additions to the album are mesmerizing.
Jansch’s voice is a remarkable instrument in itself. Depending on the mood of the song, his ability to inhabit it was exceptional. The traditional “Wild Mountain Thyme” is one example. To these ears, his voice sounds surprisingly similar to that of James Taylor. I happen to be a huge JT fan, so that comment is meant as high praise. On “Wild Mountain Thyme,” Jansch is joined by Jennifer Warnes, whose vocals add a nice element of balance to the proceedings.
“Wild Mountain Thyme” is followed by the most unusual song of the set, “Heartbreak Hotel.” It is on this track that Lee really gets a chance to cut loose on his electric guitar. It is a highly enjoyable take on the classic tune, and also provides one of the lighter moments of the album.
According Ralph McTell in the newly written liner notes for this release, Jansch was in something of a “dark place” during the time the album was recorded. Heartbreak is a great collection of songs though, both Jansch’s own compositions, and those he chose to cover. “If I Were a Carpenter” was written by Tim Hardin, yet Jansch makes it his own here. A couple of Jansch-written tracks that I would single out as highlights include “Give Me the Time,” and “Sit Down Beside Me.”
I have always been a little jealous of the fact that a friend of mine had the good fortune to see Jansch in concert about a year prior to his death. I guess I skipped the show thinking that I would have plenty of opportunities to see him in the future. Although it is nowhere near as special as having actually seen the performance, the CD version of Heartbreak does include a bonus live disc. The concert was recorded around the time of the sessions for the album.
The intimate set was at McCabe’s Guitar Shop (Santa Monica, California) in June 1981. The material is previously unreleased, and we are fortunate that Heartbreak producers Rick and John Chelew decided to record this show for posterity. Jansch played a few gigs around southern California during this time, just to kind of “loosen up” in front of a live audience. The 14-song performance runs 48:16, and is simply Jansch and his acoustic guitar. It is a wonderful addition to the studio album.
Omnivore Recordings have made their 30th anniversary edition of Heartbreak special in other ways as well. They exhibit a deep and abiding respect for Jansch, beginning with the timing of the release, which coincided with what would have been his 69th birthday, November 3, 2012. They have also pressed the initial 1500 copies of the LP on clear vinyl. Subsequent releases will be on the traditional black vinyl.
As big a fan of vinyl as I am though, if I were to recommend one format for Heartbreak, I would have to go with the double-CD version. Unfortunately, the LP edition does not include the concert, which is almost as great as the album itself.
Actually, you should probably just get both, although with only 1500 copies pressed on the clear vinyl, my guess is that you will need to act quickly to obtain one. Although he is no longer with us, Bert Jansch left behind an extraordinary legacy of music. This 30th anniversary edition of Heartbreak is a splendid tribute to him, and to one of the finest recordings of his illustrious career.