Pentangle – Through The Ages (1984-1995): Album review

Deluxe six disc compilation of Pentangle’s “middle” period

Release Date:  30th September 2022

Label: Cherry Red Records

Formats: 6-disc CD boxset

Measured in terms of commercial success alone, there’s no doubt that Pentangle, Britain’s first and – undeniably – best folk/jazz band ever, enjoyed its heyday during the period between its formation in 1967 and the all-conquering success of 1969’s Basket Of Light album.  After Basket Of Light, sales and ubiquity of which were buoyed by the band’s sole hit single, Light Flight, Pentangle continued to make great music but without ever managing to rescale the same heights and, following managerial wrangles, a bitter dispute with their record company and, let’s not forget, innumerable musical highlights, the band disintegrated in 1972, following the release of their Solomon’s Seal album.

But, consider this: Pentangle was one of those rare bands in which every member was a virtuoso – each probably the best exponent of his/her art in his/her particular field and it’s impossible to keep such a band under wraps for too long.  It was, perhaps, inevitable, therefore that, despite the mid-late seventies solo successes achieved, particularly by Messrs. Renbourn, Jansch and Thompson, Pentangle’s original lineup reconvened in 1982 – initially to perform at Cambridge Folk Festival and then to undergo a European tour.

It wasn’t to last.  Guitarist John Renbourn hadn’t settled in the reformed lineup and decided to leave the band to study for a music degree.  He was replaced by Mike Piggott, a jazz guitarist and violinist who had drawn the admiration of Bert Jansch, and it’s at this point that the story of Through the Ages, the new 6-CD Pentangle compilation from Cherry Red Records, really begins.

The compilation incorporates the albums that Pentangle recorded during the years 1984-1995, years that I have dubbed – not without good reason – Pentangle’s “middle” years.  It was, without doubt, a period of turbulence in the house of Pentangle yet it was also a period that saw the band settle into its most stable lineup of all.  The six albums included in this boxset feature four different lineups, and nine members passed through the band’s ranks between the years of 1984 and 1990.  Yet, through it all, Pentangle continued the tradition of producing fine, high-quality and infinitely durable music that had been established right back at the point of the band’s formation.

The boxset is the usual high-quality, well-packaged product that we’ve come to expect from Cherry Red.  Each of the six discs features one of the albums released during the years covered by the compilation – Open The Door (1984), In The Round (1986), So Early In The Spring (1989), Think Of Tomorrow (1991), One More Road (1993) and Live 1995 (1995).  The package also includes 28 bonus tracks – spread over the six discs – 27 of which are previously unreleased, and there are some crackers amongst them.  There are tracks from BBC2 appearances – Folk on Two and Night Ride sessions and a 1988 live performance from London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, plus live recordings from Oregon, New York and Dublin, all of which dive back into Pentangle’s extensive back catalogue. 

As is usual with a Cherry Red Package, each disc is separately presented in a sleeve with artwork that reproduces the original album; there’s a wonderfully informative and well-illustrated booklet, with notes from Jacqui McShee and band historian Colin Harper and copious quotes from contemporary band members and the whole package comes in a tastefully illustrated clamshell box.  Altogether, it’s a timely, beautiful memento of an often-overlooked period in the history of one of our most treasured bands.

Mike Piggott had settled into the Pentangle lineup, alongside original members McShee, Jansch (both of whom appear on each of the six albums in this collection), Thompson and Cox by the time 1984’s Open The Door appeared.  Produced by American brothers John and Ric Chelew, who had first encountered the band when they played the famed Troubadour in Los Angeles during their first American tour, it’s a solid album, if, in hindsight, somewhat transitional, and it includes a number of genuine highlights – notably Jacqui’s Child Of Winter (her first full composition to be recorded by Pentangle), Mike Piggott’s exquisite Dragonfly and a stunning retake on the traditional Yarrow (originally recorded for the Solomon’s Seal album), which was to become a staple of the Pentangle live set for the next few years.

By the time In The Round, the second album in this boxset, was released, bass player Danny Thompson had decided to leave the band.  He was replaced by Nigel Portman Smith, another of Bert’s acquaintances, who quickly set about filling the huge hole that had been left by Thompson’s departure.  As befits its title, In The Round is probably a more ‘rounded’ album than its predecessor.  As Jacqui McShee comments in the album’s booklet notes: “I think this album had more ‘production’ than previous albums, due to Nigel’s input on arrangements.  I for one really liked the addition of piano.  I think it helped us to spread our wings a bit and the addition of Mike’s violin gave us more scope… I think my favourite track is Circle The Moon.”  I think I’d go along with Jacqui with that choice, but Circle the Moon isn’t the only gem to be found on In the Round; Piggott’s Sunday Morning Blues, the McShee/ Portman Smith collaboration, Play The Game and, particularly the traditional Süil Agrar, a song that Jacqui picked up from her sister, Pam (who sings on the track) are all highly recommended.

Progress was certainly being made but, unfortunately, by March 1987, it was time for another change when drummer/ percussionist Terry Cox, another of the original Pentanglers, left the band, to be replaced by Gerry Conway, the former Eclection/ Fotheringay drummer who had also worked extensively with the likes of Cat Stevens, John Martyn, Sandy Denny and Joan Armatrading, to name but a few.  Conway is a fine drummer, as his track record and subsequent work with Fairport Convention readily testify, yet there have been some (Bert Jansch apparently amongst them) who have suggested that he may not have been the right choice to replace the fluid, jazz-influenced Cox.  The departure of Cox was compounded, in 1989, by Mike Piggott’s decision to move on.  Piggott was replaced by the erstwhile Lindisfarne guitarist/violinist Rod Clements – another of Bert Jansch’s old muckers and, maybe, another odd choice for Pentangle.

The album So Early In The Spring probably marked the nadir of Bert’s well-documented struggles with alcohol.  Furthermore, the lineup changes had had the inevitable effect of changing the band’s sound to something less exploratory and more structured.  There’s quite a dependance upon traditional material on the album, with songs like The Blacksmith, Bramble Briar (an alternative version of Pentangle standard, Bruton Town), Reynardine and the charming Lassie Gathering Nuts, a song that Jacqui learned from the Scottish singer, Lizzie Higgins, and again, whilst there are hints that the album is marking a transition in the band’s fortunes, it certainly isn’t without charm.  But, perhaps, Rod Clements summed up the general impressions that surrounded Pentangle at this time when he said: “I wasn’t sure of the validity of Pentangle at that time at all.  In Germany, they seemed to accept the group for what it was, but when we went to the States it was a different story.  People were palpably disappointed it wasn’t the John Renbourn/ Danny Thompson lineup.”

Clements was aware that Bert’s preferred candidate to fill what was still recognized as ‘the John Renbourn role’ was Peter Kirtley and it was no surprise to anyone when, shortly after the release of So Early In The Spring, Rod left to focus on his contributions to Lindisfarne.  Jansch was far happier working alongside Kirtley, with whom he felt he could mesh far more easily than he had with any guitarist since Renbourn, and Pentangle entered what has been described as their ‘second golden era’, with a stable lineup of Jansch/ McShee/ Portman Smith/ Kirtley and Conway that was to last as long as the original Pentangle lineup had done.

And that brings us to 1991 and the album Think Of Tomorrow – Disc 4 in this new collection.  Bert had quit drinking and was back to his dexterous, creative best and Think Of Tomorrow is an album that ranks alongside Pentangle’s very best.  Opening track, the passion-ridden O’er The Lonely Mountain is sublime – “Bert’s most compelling piece in ages,” as Jacqui has described it; Jacqui’s pair, Share A Dream and The Storyteller (Paddy’s Song) are both delightful and Peter’s Meat On The Bone shows just what an asset he’d managed to become within his short time as a band member.  Elsewhere, Bert comes up trumps again with Ever Yes, Ever No, a song that was apparently written in recognition of Jacqui’s indecisiveness, and the band’s traditional leanings are fed and watered by The Bonny Boy.

And the progress continued with One More Road (1993), a triumph of an album, regarded by many as THE mid-period offering that really represented a challenge to Basket Of Light. Q Magazine’s Rob Beattie noted that “There’s a real sense here of continuing and enriching the tradition” and the vibrant takes of such traditional staples as Willy Of Winsbury provided all the proof of that assessment that was necessary.  Jacqui’s Travelling Solo is a nice opener and the trio of Somali, Manuel and Are You Going To Scarborough Fair bring the album to a satisfying close and, to be honest, the stuff in between is all pretty enjoyable too!

Whilst all these exciting developments were underway, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Bert Jansch’s solo capital was a high as it had ever been and his attentions were partly focused upon servicing that reputation.  The other band members were also pursuing a variety of outside interests too.  Peter had moved out to Suffolk – complicating the logistics of the band considerably – Gerry was still involved with John Martyn’s band and Jacqui had started to work with Spencer Cozens – a working relationship that would extend into the next phase of the Pentangle story…

The Live 1994 album, recorded during the band’s tour of Germany that year, once again features the post So Early… lineup performing at its very best.  The album’s track listing is a kind of “best of…” selection of the ‘middle period’  material, plus a scattering of older favourites (and the bonus tracks on Disc 5 of the collection, also recorded live in 1994, but at Whelan’s in Dublin help to fill in what gaps there are on the Live 1994 album, with versions of Willy of Winsbury, Train Song and Light Flight.)  It’s a worthy catalogue to summarise an often-overlooked period in the life of this great band.

After the tour to promote Live 1994, Bert Jansch decided that, after nearly 30 years, his time had come to follow in the steps of Rebourn, Thompson and Cox and to leave Pentangle, thus putting an end to the ‘middle period’ that is celebrated so comprehensively in this boxset.  Hugely significant though it was, Bert’s departure didn’t signal the end of Pentangle – the determination of Jacqui McShee saw to that.  In 1995, the seeds were sown for what would become Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle before, in a truly momentous move, Pentangle’s original lineup reformed in 2008.  The band made several high-profile television and festival appearances and undertook a UK tour which resulted in Finale, a 2CD live album, released in 2016.  Rumours are rife that this period of the Pentangle story, along with selections from the first 1982 reunion, will shortly be celebrated in a further Cherry Red boxset.  We’re watching that particular space very closely indeed…

Listen to O’er The Lonely Mountain, the opening track on Think Of Tomorrow – one of the albums included in this boxset – here:

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1 reply »

  1. Sounds interesting. I just hope the sound won’t be badly compressed at the mastering stage as Cherry Red haven’t been great on issuing CDs with a good dynamic range in recent years.

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