Bert Jansch

While Bert Jansch will probably be forever remembered primarily for the albums he made in the ’60s and ’70s as both a solo artist and as a member of Pentangle, he continued to record well into his 60s. Indeed, he reunited with Pentangle as late as 1993 and released The Black Swan under his own name in 2006, five years before his death. But perhaps the decade to which Jansch’s finger-picked folk seems the most anachronistic is the ’80s. However, while it seems unfathomable that Jansch would still be reaching an audience amongst the plasticity and coke-fueled excessiveness of that time, he was just as active in the ’80s as any time during his career, releasing two records with Pentangle and another handful on his own.

Among the solo records Jansch released in the ’80s, 1982’s Heartbreak sticks out as a highlight. The album was recorded in the summer of 1981 at Silverlake Studio in Los Angeles. Overseeing the recording were Rick and John Chelew, two fans who had no recording experience. (John would go on to produce albums for John Hiatt and The Blind Boys of Alabama, among others.) The Chelews borrowed money from their mother to help finance the record and enlist guitarist Albert Lee and guest vocalist Jennifer Warnes.

Heartbreak was originally released by Hannibal Records, but is now being reissued for its 30th anniversary by Omnivore Recordings. Jansch played several shows during his time in California, including one at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, where John Chelew did some booking. For this edition of the album, a recording of that show has been included. The performance includes songs from the album he was working on (“Blackwater Slide,” “Wild Mountain Thyme,” “If I Were a Carpenter”), as well as staples from his catalog like the traditional “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and originals like “Ask Your Daddy.” Jansch is in fine form, blending charming banter in amongst his wonderful playing. Introducing “Poor Mouth” after “Curragh of Kildare,” he says, “That was a genuine Irish song, and I’m now going to sing a fake one. I know it’s fake because I wrote it myself... It’s supposed to be funny this song, but I’m not a very funny geezer.”

Obviously, the addition of this live set makes this edition of Heartbreak indispensable, but the album stands on its own as well. Jansch’s collaborators tastefully blend the guitarist’s more traditional leanings with modern touches, with tracks like the traditional “Blackwater Side” given 20th century warmth without, thank God, adding any ’80s production values. “Sit Down Beside Me” shows Jansch pushing himself, sounding as much like the artists he no doubt touched (Neil Young, Donovan) as himself. He even makes “Heartbreak Hotel” his own, bending it to his own intonations. There are still those songs like “If I Were a Carpenter” where Jansch relied on nothing but his guitar and voice, though, and it’s still jarring to hear the richness of such moments. Jansch was an artist who obviously transcended time and trend, and Heartbreak shows that even midway through his career he was still at his peak.
Stephen Slaybaugh