The John Renbourn Group – A Maid In Bremen: Album Review

Long-lost live recording of the John Renbourn Group resurfaces to charm new listeners and long standing fans alike.

Release Date:  26th February 2021

Label: MiG music

Formats: CD/Vinyl/Download

German record label MiG music have come up with a real find here… A live recording of The John Renbourn Group from a show in Roemer, Bremen (Germany) on 14th February 1978.  The recording was made and broadcast by the local station, Radio Bremen, before promptly fading from public memory and awareness.  MiG music deserves real thanks for unearthing the tapes and issuing this live recording – because it’s a real gem; not only a fascinating time capsule for the legions of Pentangle and John Renbourn devotees, this is also an album that provides an excellent introduction to those keen to discover what all the fuss is about.

Let’s first have a look at the line up of the John Renbourn Band that evening 43 years ago: along with Pentangle’s vocalist Jacqui McShee, John was joined by Tony Roberts on flutes, Keshav Sathe on tabla and, from the French prog/folk/rock outfit Mormos, Sandy Spencer on cello.  The sound they made was awesome and, on this recording, it’s preserved in all the crystal clarity that those lucky enough to have present will have enjoyed at the actual show.

And what’s more, the choice of material was inspired!  To a large degree, the setlist is structured around selections from the John Renbourn Group’s then current album, A Maid In Bedlam with a liberal sprinkling of Pentangle standards added for good measure; the setlist really couldn’t have been better planned even if John et al knew that the recording was going to be submerged and would only resurface some 40-odd years into the future!

Back in 1978, Pentangle was, of course, in suspended animation, following the departure of Bert Jansch some five years earlier.  After the Pentangle split, John Renbourn continued to work with Jacqui as a duo, but both agreed that they missed the fuller sound and opportunities for experimentation that a group could provide, and The John Renbourn Group was born.  The band’s first album, the aforementioned A Maid in Bedlam was released in 1977 and was flowed by further releases The Enchanted Garden (1980) and Live in America (1982).  By the time of that February 1978 gig, the band was cooking, with a repertoire that included the full range of John’s extensive musical interests, from straight traditional folk, via early music and medieval rounds, through jazz, Americana and country to authentic delta blues.  And it’s all preserved here on this tremendous album.

And yet despite the familiarity of the source material, the band’s sound is unique.  John’s intricate guitar passages mesh delightfully with Tony’s flute and Keshav’s tabla, Sandy’s cello provides a marvelous finishing touch and Jacqui’s vocals are exquisite throughout – as good as I’ve ever heard them – and the overall impact is a beautiful blend of western music styles with a distinct flavouring of the Indian subcontinent.

The whole album has a wonderful continuity too.  This is one of those live albums that make you feel that the band are there in the room with you, and in these COVID-riven times, that’s a real bonus.  Jacqui’s and John’s introductions are lucid and add to the intimacy of the show and I strongly suggest that the way to listen to this album is to draw the curtains, jack up the volume, pour yourself a large drink and settle down to enjoy a wonderfully entertaining concert.

The standard is set by the concert’s opener, I Am A Maid That’s Deep In Love, a Pentangle number from their 1970 Cruel Sister album where Jacqui’s voice and that eclectic mix of instruments let you know exactly what is to be served up over the next hour or so.  There’s more of the same on Death and the Lady, the first of five featured songs from the A Maid In Bedlam album, before Jacqui takes centre stage for the stunningly beautiful A Capella Westron Wynd.  Seasoned Pentanglers will be familiar with the bluesy rag Sweet Potato, a fast, furious piece that reminds us just how excellent a guitarist John Renbourn really was and which also provides room for Tony and Sandy to stretch out on their respective instruments.

Traffic, Steeleye and Fairport are just three of the acts that have tackled the broadside ballad John Barleycorn, each time with a different approach.  On A Maid In Bremen, The John Renbourn Band strip the song back to its medieval origins and present it as a round with John, Jacqui and Tony all taking a vocal part.  Snatches of the medieval dance tune La Rotta are incorporated into the song to emphasise and enhance the medieval feel.

In keeping with the eclectic theme, the medieval drinking song is followed by Turn Your Money Green, a 1920’s Furry Lewis blues with excellent harmony singing from John and Jacqui.  Some nice flute from Tony complements the always excellent guitar work and the song achieves an authentic 20s feel.  After the blues interlude, we’re back to traditional folk with My Johnny Was A Shoemaker, a song from the A Maid in Bedlam album that sounds clean and pure and is set alight by the interaction between the flute and tabla.  And if that’s not enough variety, To Glastonbury can only be described as a chunk of medieval jazz, a delicious mix that is brought to a conclusion by a sublime tabla solo from Keshav.

We stick with the medieval theme for Gypsy Dance/Jew’s Dance Neusedler Melody, before returning to trad folk with The Maid on the Shore, an intriguing story, beautifully sung by Jacqui, and A Maid in Bedlam, the title track from the recent album.  Sidi Brahim is a frantic raga which, on the day of the concert was so early in its gestation that it hadn’t even been given its name.  It’s a wonderful mélange of raga guitar, soaring flute, dependable tabla and odd time signatures and it was to be given full justice on the band’s next album, The Enchanted Garden.

Jacqui introduces Cruel Sister as the show’s last number and then goes on to exceed even her own monumental standards with a fantastic vocal delivery.  The song, the band and the set get the fulsome applause they deserve before they are brought back for two encores, the first an authentic adaptation of Mississippi Fred MacDowell’s Kokomo Blues and, to finally bring the whole thing to a close, a great version of Willy O’ Winsbury.

I was fortunate enough to see the reformed original lineup of Pentangle when they toured during the summer of 2008 – an experience that has gained extra poignancy as Bert Jansch and John Renbourn are no longer with us. Pentangle and its members have, both individually and collectively, amassed a mighty legacy – in which A Maid in Bremen is thoroughly worthy of its place. There’s probably still a few months to go before we can all start attending concerts again.  I know that none of us can wait until that day comes but, in the meantime, I can’t think of a better way of filling that gaping void than with live albums as good as this one.  MiG music – you’ve done a brilliant job!

A Maid In Bremen is available to pre-order now from Amazon or via this link:

Watch the video of Pentangle (featuring John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee) performing Willy O’ Winsbury here:

You can follow At The Barrier on Twitter here, and like us on Facebook here. We really appreciate your support

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.