John Renbourn & Wizz Jones, Thurs 27 Feb
Martin Simpson, Thurs 3 Apr
Years ago, the Albert in Bedminster presented two nights by the French gypsy guitarists Boulou and Elios Ferre, normally resident in Montmartre. On the first night, the brothers’ genius at improvisation on a range of familiar-ish themes came close to beggaring belief. Boulou in particular – who was playing lead to Elios’s rhythm – summoned up such apparently unforced artistry that it seemed he could make his instrument not just talk, but declaim complex verse-forms in any number of obscure languages at will. At the end of the first half, we were not so much impressed as struck dumb at the sheer wonderment of it all. Then the brothers came out for the second set and swapped roles, Boulou playing rhythmic foil to Elios’s lead, without any slackening of skill, pace or power. “I’ve been playing the guitar for twenty years”, I remember a Bristolian-voiced punter saying after the encores. “And I’m going home tonight to smash it up!”
Of course, while I’ve never seen anyone quite live up to les freres Ferre, most virtuoso guitarists are a bit like that: flash, filigree and fiendishly flying fingers are all part of the job description. The imp of the perverse that trounces reason, causing you to laugh out loud with delight and doubt the evidence of your eyes and ears is, with the greatest players, an essential part of the act. There’s also an awful lot of virtuosi out there, and we’ve had a stack of them at St George’s over the years, folk, jazz, blues, flamenco, raga, rock, ragtime, you name it, Tommy Emmanuel and all. But my own personal favourite, and the guy who’s come back more than any other, is John Renbourn.
I saw him first with Pentangle, at Newcastle City Hall, and I didn’t see him again until St George’s, although I owned and revered the album ‘Bert & John’, with that sublime version of Mingus’s ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’. We’d already had Bert Jansch, and bassist Danny Thompson had played with the singer Julie Murphy, by the time we got John. While I wasn’t consciously collecting old Pentanglers, what may have been Renbourn’s first show was in a duo with vocalist Jacqui McShee, so that was four out of the five checked off the list already (drummer Terry Cox remains). With guitarists, a little virtuosity goes a long way and genius can be as fatiguing to listen to as it appears effortless to create, but what Renbourn – who’s a terrific fingerstyle guitarist, obviously – brings to the party is a healthy dose of humanity, and a well-honed set of killer tunes. His style comes originally out of skiffle I’d guess, that weird home-grown mixture of blues, folk and jazz, but the influence of Davey Graham, whose DADGAD tuning and interest in weird Moroccan scales turned everyone’s head in the Sixties, became the foundation for an idiosyncratic exploration of Elizabethan and Jacobean music to produce something irreducibly his own. But Renbourn, who’s close to the nicest musician I’ve met, and – unusually for his calling – interested in music other than his own, kept on developing, adding bluegrass picking and Merle Travis-a-billy to the storehouse of styles. His brilliance is also not without effort, and one of the many pleasures of a Renbourn performance is seeing him dig in and wrestle with his muse.
Wizz Jones, who will open the show, digs in so deep that it can seem he’s practically sculpting the sound through willpower alone, chipping away at a recalcitrant instrument in order to make it obey his whim, with a gathering uncertainty as to whether he’ll get the upper hand or not. As such, he’s the more assured Renbourn’s perfect foil, and an absolute charmer. Martin Simpson, who plays a solo show in April, is, by contrast, the consummate artist. Quieter, more reflective, he’s so in command of a variety of styles that after appreciating the finer details, all you can do is sit slack-jawed and gape. And that’s enough guitarists, for a while at least.
Phil Johnson, Senior Programme Producer
John Renbourn & Wizz Jones – Thursday 27 February, 8pm
Martin Simpson – Thursday 3 April, 8pm