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John Renbourn

Born 8th August 1944 in Torquay (but raised in Marylebone, London), JOHN RENBOURN ranks up there with the great acoustic Brit-folk guitarists like DAVEY GRAHAM and BERT JANSCH; the fact that he combined with the latter for a collaborative set in the mid-60s, and with jazz-folk dignitaries PENTANGLE, showed how pivotal and influential the man was to music in general.
Taught classical guitar at school and soon inspired by the likes of LEADBELLY, JOSH WHITE and Big Bill Broonzy, John latched on to the folk-revival gravy train in the early 60s when he toured London and Edinburgh alongside MAC MacLEOD and the aforementioned JANSCH. Inking a deal with Transatlantic Records (who didn’t?), his distinctive “folk-baroque” style took shape on his eponymous solo LP, JOHN RENBOURN (1966) {*7}. With honest-to-goodness technique winning the battle over savoir-faire and sophistication, several JR originals come to the fore alongside a few trad arrangements (including `Candy Man’, `Motherless Children’ and `John Henry’), a cover of MUDDY WATERS’ `Louisiana Blues’ and the first fruits of his work alongside JANSCH, `Blue Bones’ and `Noah And Rabbit’.
The following year or so saw RENBOURN pick up the pace somewhat. The release of two sets with UK-based African-American gospel-blues diva DORRIS HENDERSON (`There You Go!’ and `Watch The Stars’), were somewhat overshadowed by 1966’s `Bert And John’ (with JANSCH), or indeed his sophomore solo effort, ANOTHER MONDAY (1966) {*6}. The latter strayed at times into Elizabethan territory (e.g. `Ladye Nothinge’s Toye Puffe’), while on other tracks the blues run the game through sourced tracks like `Nobody’s Fault But Mine’. PENTANGLE acolytes can listen out for JACQUI McSHEE on a couple of songs, hardly PENTANGLE quality, but it was RENBOURN’s subsequent port of call from 1968 onwards, give or take a few splits.
RENBOURN maintained his renaissance, medieval approach courtesy of SIR JOHN ALOT OF MERRIE ENGLANDES MUSYK THYNG & YE GRENE KNYGHTE {*7}, basically an instrumental record that was quite ambitious in its day (AMAZING BLONDEL and GENTLE GIANT were still to come), highlights including the traditional `The Trees They Do Grow High’, Charles Lloyd’s `Transfusion’, BOOKER T & THE MGs’ `Sweet Potato’, and two workouts with session/PENTANGLE percussionist Terry Cox, `Forty-Eight’ and `Seven Up’; the record’s flautist, Ray Warleigh, co-penned `White Fishes’.
Serving up a medieval feast of classical-meets-trad instrumentals (and graced with Cox, Tony Roberts and violinist DAVE SWARBRICK), THE LADY AND THE UNICORN (1970) {*5}, came perilously close to leaving contemporary folk behind; even `My Johnny Was A Shoemaker’ medley (all 13 minutes of it) strayed too far from its origins. Representing a return to his blues roots, FARO ANNIE (1972) {*5} was a complete contrast to its predecessor, a back-to-basics covers attempt at winning back some old fans, rather than ye-olde fans; one will recognise `Buffalo Skinners’, `The Cuckoo’, `Come On In My Kitchen’, `Kokomo Blues’ and `Willy O’Winsbury’ (among others); the title track was penned with his PENTANGLE buddies, Cox and DANNY THOMPSON.
With PENTANGLE untangled since 1972’s `Solomon’s Seal’ swansong (their first of many!), JOHN RENBOURN discovered his classical side on the long-awaited THE HERMIT (1976) {*5}. Here, he blends `Three Pieces By O’Carolan’ alongside retrospective cuts such as `Faro’s Rag’, `Old Mac Bladgitt’ and `Bicycle Tune’ – all very John Williams.
1977 saw the transitional JOHN RENBOURN GROUP grow from earlier mid-70s incarnations; Tony Roberts, JACQUI McSHEE, Sue Draheim and Keshav Sathe gave the virtuoso guitarist further scope to experiment between folk and minstrelsy on A MAID IN BEDLAM {*7}. Disciples of the missing PENTANGLE must’ve been overjoyed with such heavenly delights as the title track, `Blackwaterside’, `John Barleycorn’ and `Reynardine’, while a newfound Celtic side was fashioned through `The Battle Of Augrham – 5 In A Line’.
Squeezed between two collaborative sets with STEFAN GROSSMAN (`Stefan Grossman & John Renbourn’ and `Under The Volcano’), THE BLACK BALLOON (1979) {*5} showed signs of weariness, while the songs got even longer by way of the traditionally-sourced title track, a track even lengthier than his 9-minute medley `The Mist Covered Mountains Of Home’.
The JOHN RENBOURN GROUP (Messrs RENBOURN, McShee, Roberts, Sathe and newcomers John Molineux and Glen Tommy) completed a further studio outing, THE ENCHANTED GARDEN (1980) {*6}; Eastern, traditional, Celtic and classical combined on at least three wee gems, `The Plains Of Waterloo’, `The Maid On The Shore’ and closing number `Sidi Brahim’. The latter was extended to 11 minutes for the ensemble’s concert double, LIVE IN AMERICA (1982) {*7}, highlighted by the crystalline vox of McShee (once again) and recorded in San Francisco in April 1981.
After a time to reflect, RENBOURN reconvened in the latter half of the 80s, delivering a body of work to compete with anything he produced a decade earlier. The solo THE NINE MAIDENS (1986) {*6} also identified with that period, surrounded as it was by works with fellow guitarist GROSSMAN on the stylised LIVE… IN CONCERT (1985) {*6} and studio ragtime-folk effort THE THREE KINGDOMS (1987) {*5}.
In stark contrast once again, the pastoral sea-shanty folk of his next project, JOHN RENBOURN’S SHIP OF FOOLS (1989) {*6}, at least produced a new band in vocalist MAGGIE BOYLE, her hubby/guitarist STEVE TILSTON and retainer/flautist Tony Roberts. As for the album itself, half the tracks were of trad origin, the others surfacing from John (including `Traveller’s Prayer’), DAVE GOULDER (`Sandwood Down To Kyle’) and the excellent group-penned title track.
The most interesting of all his collaborative work had to be with ROBIN WILLIAMSON and the album WHEEL OF FORTUNE (1993) {*7}, a live-at-the-Old-School-of-Folk-Music set mixing time-honoured trad fare with ARCHIE FISHER’s `Lindsay’, Randy Weston’s jazzy `Little Niles’ and a handful of joint pieces with the INCREDIBLE STRING BAND giant (check out `South Wind – Blarney Pilgrim’).
RENBOURN’s final set, TRAVELLER’S PRAYER (1998) {*5} was a hark back to his “medieval” works of olde, although it’s enhanced by some hymnal and classical-meets-Celtic-ish augmentation from `Bunyan’s Hymn’ to his self-penned farewell parting, `Estampie’. Still performed around the world, including post-millennium tours of Japan and guest spots for McShee and WILLIAMSON, he was back his first album in more than a decade. PALERMO SNOW (2011) {*6} was as bleakly bluesy as its title suggested, and augmented by Dick Lee (on clarinet), John treads a thin line between folk, jazz and classical; the latter genre embracing J.S. Bach’s `Cello Prelude In G’ and Erik Satie’s `Sarabande’. Among his own plucky gems (including the toytown-titled `Weebles Wobble (But They Don’t Fall Down)’ were closing reinterpretations of `Little Niles’ and `Blueberry Hill’. Dream on.
Subsequently semi-retired and living in the Scottish Borders (Hawick) for several years, RENBOURN died of a heart attack on 26 March 2015.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Aug2012-Mar2015

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