Clive Carroll – The Abbot: Album Review

A deep, respectful and thoroughly engaging sweep through the music of John Renbourn – conducted by John’s long-term associate, Clive Carroll.

Release Date:  2nd October 2023

Label: Self Release

Formats: 2CD

Subtitled “Clive Carroll Plays the Music of John Renbourn,” The Abbot is a work of dedication, perseverance and pure, unadulterated, love by an accomplished musician who knew the late, great, John Renbourn as well as anyone.  Two-and-a-half years in the making, it’s a double album that revisits all parts of John’s extensive repertoire – including a couple of delves into tunes that have never publicly seen the light of day – and re-presents tunes in a range of formats that include solo guitar interpretations, duos and, best of all, some of the most enchanting ensemble arrangements that I’ve ever heard.  The Abbot is an absolute triumph.

Clive Carroll and John Renbourn were long-term friends.  They first met when Clive opened for JR at a gig at The Red Lion in Manningtree, Essex, back in the late 1990s.  Clive was, at the time, a conservatory student, and John was clearly impressed by what he heard that evening, as he invited Clive to join him on the road and the pair subsequently toured Europe and North America together.

It was during these tours that John earned the nickname that has given this album its title; the name The Abbot was inspired by the Greene King ale of the same name and, I’m assuming, John Renbourn’s liking for that particular beverage (at around the same time, Clive was – for reasons I haven’t seen explained – rechristened Kid.

I’m sure that John Renbourn – a key figure in the British Folk Revival and in the ‘Folk-Baroque’ movement requires little introduction to readers of these pages.  His work, as a solo artist, as part of a duo with Bert Jansch or as a member of jazz-folk pioneers Pentangle, is widely admired and, with The Abbot, Clive Carroll has shone a vivid spotlight that emphasizes just how enduring Renbourn’s work continues to be.

It’s a lengthy tome – of that there’s no doubt.  Clocking in at 27 tracks and just over two hours in listening time, The Abbot is a deep and comprehensive dive into John’s career and Clive’s arrangements of his tunes are clearly the result of much well-considered thought.  Clive is a phenomenal guitarist who, pleasingly, never, ever, lets ‘virtuoso’ get in the way of ‘tunefulness,’ and his solo reworkings of tunes such as Buffalo (a bluesy classic from JR’s 1966 album Another Monday), the hymnal/baroque Lady Goes to Church, The Hermit (title track of Renbourn’s 1976 solo album) or the delightful, ragtime, Faro’s Rag (also from The Hermit) demonstrate Clive’s sheer admiration for (and great willingness to learn from ) the master.

It’s not just on guitar that Clive excels, either.  His celeste part on opening track Orlando is joyous and a tremendous mood-setter for the whole album, his banjo adds a marvelous rural feel to the folk song The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Sow Corn and his glockenspiel and bodhrán add a special subtlety throughout the album.

But, maybe, it’s when Clive’s ensemble of special guest musicians kick in that The Abbot really takes a grip on the listener’s sensibilities and examples of John’s tunes being raised to another level by Clive’s imaginative instrumentation choices are almost too numerous to name.  But I’ll have a go…

The interpretation of The Pelican, one of Renbourn’s best-known pieces is inspired.  Performed as a glorious pastoral piece, Clive’s fluent guitar takes centre stage, joined progressively by all manner of unexpected embellishments from flute, clarinet, cor anglais and glockenspiel.  It really does have to be heard to be believed!

And, on Disc 2 of this set, the ensemble really start to cook.  The disc opens with a pair of Renbourn compositions that have never before been heard – at least by anyone outside John’s immediate circle.  For Intrada and Danse Royale, Clive is joined by Professor Robert A White and the Unseen University’s Early Music Ensemble for a couple of breathtaking tunes, both delivered via the time-honoured means of instruments such as kirtles, recorders, cornet, shawm, dulcimer along with the more common bass and guitar.  And the tunes are a revelation.

And it doesn’t stop there; Disc 2 is particularly notable for the pair of lengthy medleys from John’s live and recorded repertoires that allow Clive to once again demonstrate his prowess as a musician and an arranger.  The Lament For Owen Roe O’Neill medley is eight minutes of pure listening pleasure and, if anything, things get even better for closing track, Sidi Brahim.  Sidi Brahim is a collection of six of John Renbourn’s favourite tunes and, here, Clive has enlisted the services of a special group of friends – Wizz Jones, Mike Walker, Rémy Froissart, Jacqui McShee and Stefan Grossman who all play their part in concluding an album that must be the ultimate tribute to the genius and musicality of John Renbourn. I could go on.  The Abbot is crammed with musical delights; Clive’s guitar work is magnificent throughout, the vocal contributions from his sister, Airavata, are beautiful and there isn’t a dull or substandard moment anywhere.  I think I’ve said this already, but I’ll say it again: The Abbot is a triumph.

Watch Clive Carroll play Lament For Owen Roe O’Neill/ Mist Covered Mountains of Home/ The Orphan – a medley that’s featured on The Abbot – here:

Clive Carroll online: Website / Facebook / Instagram / YouTube

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