Renbourn tells acoustic tales

Noted guitatist brings various styles to Juneau

Posted: Thursday, September 21, 2000

A ticket for Friday's John Renbourn concert gets you seven concerts in one.

With Renbourn, one ticket offers access to folk, jazz, country blues,,agtime, classical, Middle Eastern and pre-Renaissance music.

The innovative acoustic steel-stringed guitarist takes the stage at 8 p.m. Friday at Chapel by the Lake.

Renbourn got his start playing the London club scene in the mid-1960s, re-defining the limits of folk music. In the four decades since, his following of fans and music students has grown steadily, and he's been nominated for two Grammy Awards.

And to think it all happened by accident.

"I actually went to art college to do painting," Renbourn said in interview Wednesday from Anchorage.

Renbourn's current North American tour took him through Anchorage this week, where he sold out three shows. He wrapped the Alaska concert tour around a New York performance honoring blues singer Robert Johnson.

Promoter Katy Spangler, who owns Whistling Swan Productions with her husband, Mike McCormick, said Renbourn was a hot ticket in Anchorage.

"The response was so good we had to add an extra show," Spangler said.

Renbourn won't spend even one night in Juneau he leaves for St. Louis immediately after the concert. But Pat Henry, who is producing the show with the Alaska Folk Festival, said a few hours with Renbourn is fine with him.

"He's kind of an idol worldwide," Henry said. "I don't have the superlatives. He just has such control and technique and talent.

"He brings a whole lot of stuff together and makes it sound simple, but it's really not."

Henry said he probably enjoys Renbourn's classical and jazz recordings most of all, but added that Renbourn's work is so diverse that it appeals to virtually every audience.

Born in Marylebone, London, in 1944, Renbourn studied classical music under his mother and classical guitar in prep school. He attended the Kingston College of Art, though he noted the school seemed to turn out more musicians than it did artists including Eric Clapton and Sandy Denny.

In early 1960s England, Renbourn and some of his bluesy steel-stringed guitarist pals were interested in changing the long-entrenched and much more traditional sound that had dominated British folk music.

"It was a nice time," he said. "Everyone was experimenting with blues and American folk. Nobody was sure what was what. I had an acoustic guitar rather than electric, so I was considered folk."

Breaking in wasn't easy because anti-guitar sentiment was deep-rooted in England's clubs.

"They were completely against it," Renbourn recalled. "It (the guitar) was banned in a lot of the clubs. The funny thing is that of all the instruments that would have been used in traditional folk, it would be the harp. With its metal strings and a range of three octaves, it's the exact equivalent of the guitar, just a different shape."

But the clubs didn't want to listen to such reason.

A friend, Gerry Lockran, introduced Renbourn to the more progressive clubs in Soho, "kind of the red light area" of London, he said. There, Renbourn's music career began to blossom.

It was also there that he met and roomed with Bert Jansch, with whom he would collaborate on a number of projects. Renbourn said Davy Graham was the true trend-setter of the day, and that he and Jansch were following his lead. "He was playing traditional British music that had never been done before on a steel-stringed guitar. Everyone was amazed by it," Renbourn said of Graham.

Still, music critics today said that Renbourn, Jansch and Graham, along with Martin Carthy, were primarily responsible for hatching the innovative sound a mix of American, British and Celtic folk music with blues, classical and Middle Eastern effects.

Renbourn, Jansch and singer Jacqui McShee pushed the creativity envelope a bit further when they teamed up with jazz musicians Terry Cox and Danny Thompson to form Pentangle in the late 1960s.

"We had listened to jazz-based music, but we weren't bebop," Renbourn said. "We played lines and fused music. It was a blend of British and American folk."

This band springboarded Renbourn into the American scene. Pentangle toured the United States, visiting Carnegie Hall, the Newport Folk Festival and the Fillmore East and West, among other prominent venues. After Pentangle dissolved in 1973, Renbourn teamed up with McShee, Tony Roberts and other friends to compriseehe John Renbourn Group. Their recording "Live in America" netted them a Grammy nomination.

In the early 1980s Renbourn went back to school music school this time and he received a degree in composition and orchestration from the music college Dartington in South Devon.

"I was living by the riverside in England and I used to meet a lot of young musicians. They were studying Early Music and would say, 'You were the one of the guys who got us started.' It got me jealous because I never had a chance to study. The principal there said, 'Well, come on and join us.'"

Since then he has branched out into writing for groups of instruments not necessarily folk related. He had a brief stint in a group called Ship of Fools and collaborated with Robin Williamson on an album called "Wheel of Fortune" in 1994. The album netted the duo a Grammy nomination, though they were edged out by Bob Dylan on awards night.

In 1997 the Shanachie label offered Renbourn a contract to release five CDs, the first of which was "Traveller's Prayer" in 1999.

Renbourn said he's about halfway through the second release, which he's working on at his home just south of Edinburgh, Scotland.

There, he said, "It does rain a lot, and the winters are cold."

He should feel right at home, then, in Juneau on Friday night.

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