Colin H on Faro Annie
I was searching for something else on back-up disc today and came across a sleevenote for an early 90s reissue of one of the least-known but, in my view, the best of John Renbourn’s album’s, 1971’s ‘Faro Annie’. I see from amazon that even the reissue CD is now rare. You might as well find the original vinyl, though there’s a download available. I’ve tweaked the text slightly. Here it is, just because it’s a bit of buried treasure once again.
With a contractual situation which had recently become weighted against them, the members of the Pentangle – formed in 1967 and slowly progressing to a dissolution in the early weeks of 1973 – had known and accepted that their 1971 album Reflection, recorded in March and released in October of that year, was to be their last album for Transatlantic. But it was not quite the last from the Pentangle family. That honour goes to lead guitarist John Renbourn’s Faro Annie, recorded around August 1971 and released on 14 January 1972. While some in the group were gnashing their teeth and looking for someone to blame – manager Jo Lustig and label boss Nathan Joseph being two contenders for the flak – Renbourn was rather stoic about things:
‘I remember with quite a lot of fondness and gratitude,’ he said, ‘the fact that I made any records at all. I saw Nat as being quite a benefactor and I developed a genuine respect for the type of music that came out of the Transatlantic company as a whole. All those people that recorded for Transatlantic – they were an interesting bunch. I think it was quite a legacy. But I think our contracts with Transatlantic were all about to expire, and the American company that had leased material from Transatlantic – Warner Brothers, or the branch of Warner Brothers that was called Reprise – wanted to take up our personal contracts: Bert’s and mine as solo artists, and the group’s. This is how I remember it. I had one more record to do for Transatlantic and in a moment of some wistfulness, thinking back to the old days, I decided to make a record that was going to be, in my view, like the first one [John Renbourn, 1966], just to make it a complete cycle. I was going to get all my mates in and make a bluesy record. So I got Pete Dyer, who used to play harmonica at the Roundhouse; Dorris Henderson, who I’d been in contact with all the time; and Danny and Terry [bass and drums with the Pentangle] kindly came in and played a little bit. By that stage I was able to afford an electric guitar! Basically, we got it together and played a bunch of bluesy things, which, I felt was an appropriate way to say, ‘Well, I came in this way and I’m going out this way too!’
‘We had some technical problems on that one,’ says Bill Leader, who produced the album with engineer Nic Kinsey. ‘John had developed this delicate guitar style – that was inaudible! We were literally fighting noise, because the mike was turned up so high and he was playing so quietly that very often the loudest thing was his sleeve moving across the guitar! But the sessions were quite good, I think. He marshalled all his girlfriends for that one – Sue Draheim and his previous young lady, Dorris Henderson, who hit the studio like a bomb. She was a very exuberant lady. Perhaps Sue felt a little awkward, but not much ever phased Dorris! A lot of time was spent in the pub; a lot of Pernod was drunk by John, I seem to remember. But there was some good playing.’
John and Dorris had worked as a duo for a year or so in the mid-60s, resulting in two albums, There You Go (Columbia, 1965) and Watch The Stars (Fontana, 1967), the latter appearing during the early days of the Perntangle, long after the pair had stopped working together on the road. Since then, Dorris had briefly been a member of Trevor Lucas’s pre-Fairport Convention folk-rock band Eclection, recording one single with them, and had also tried her luck with the unrecorded Tintagel. Bar one obscure Dutch film soundtrack EP, Faro Annie would mark the swansong of her recording career.* In contrast, Sue Draheim’s was only just beginning. Like Dorris, Sue was from California – hooking up with John in Ireland during the summer of ’71 while the latter was holidaying and searching vainly for fleadhs with Bert Jansch. Specialising in old-timey fiddle music, with a parallel penchant for Bach and the Grateful Dead, Sue’s recording career prior to arriving on the English folk scene consisted of one track on a 1969 album, Blue Ridge Mountain Field Trip (released in the UK on Leader/Trailer). Along with the Faro Annie sessions, she would spend the latter part of 1971 contributing to Royston Wood’s first solo album, angling for a UK work permit, and living on a barge on the Thames with Renbourn. Recording and touring opportunities with the Dransfields and the first, short-lived version of Ashley Hutchings’ Albion Country Band were also on the horizon.
John’s wistful recollections of Faro Annie’s conception, while certainly true, are only a part of the story. Interviewed by Rosalind Russell for Disc during the week of the album’s release, John expanded on the back-to-basics approach:
‘It was done in a hurry, because we were changing record labels and I still owed Transatlantic an album… and as the studio was being knocked down and rebuilt around our ears, the whole session was chaotic to say the least. The way it turned out is strange. It’s like my first album – there’s no worked out stuff on it, just folk songs. The other songs I was working on needed more time to be worked out.’
John was referring here to a batch of self-written songs, unique in his canon of instrumental music and folk/blues interpretations, which would eventually comprise his ultimately shelved Warner’s album of 1973, provisionally titled Just Like Me (finally slipping out as The Lost Sessions on Demon Records in the late 90s). Further work that John had completed around the time of the short and sharp Faro Annie sessions was the producing and guesting-on of an album (Right Now, Columbia 1972) for another of his heroes from the early days, Wizz Jones, and, with the Pentangle, writing and recording the soundtrack to a Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna documentary sequel to Born Free called The Lion At World’s End (sometimes known as Christian The Lion or variations thereof). In similarly nostalgic fashion, he let slip to Rosalind Russell the (never fulfilled) possibilities of making another duo album with Bert Jansch, reprising the now legendary Bert And John album of 1966. However, ‘when we get together and have a glass or so of wine to clear the thoughts, rehearsing becomes a little difficult’.
If the concept behind Faro Annie was fuelled by nostalgia, the material itself was largely fresh and unheralded. Only ‘Country Blues’, featured on a BBC radio session in December 1969, had any documented history in Renbourn’s repertoire. ‘Willy O’Winsbury’, a folk-rock classic in the making, had been appeared on albums by Sweeney’s Men in 1968 and Anne Briggs in 1971 but was still far from hackneyed. It would turn up in an arrangement very similar to that on Faro Annie on the final Pentangle album, Solomon’s Seal, to be recorded around February 1972. Beyond those tracks and the Draheim fave ‘Little Sadie’ – mentioned as a definite for inclusion in a July 1971 Melody Maker interview with Sue – little on the album could have been predicted. ‘Back On The Road Again’ was a compelling ‘part two’ from the rare pen of Alex Campbell, whose ‘Been On The Road So Long’ had long been a classic of the British troubadour experience. Along with ‘Shake Shake Mamma’, ‘Kokomo Blues’ and the jammed instrumental title-track it comprised a quartet of Pentangle-ish arrangements, all featuring Danny and Terry (although the original sleeve credits were a little confusing on this point). Even the Robert Johnson cover ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ was not one of the spiritual godfather of blues-rock’s more widely covered items.
Faro Annie was indeed a fine piece of work and, while he was still waxing lyrical to interviewers about the joys of Early Music (‘you’d never listen to me again,’ he promised Rosalind Russell, if only she’d check out David Munrow’s Early Music Consort), it was a refreshing contrast to the previous, somewhat studious direction of his solo work. As with Bert’s Birthday Blues, it felt at times like a virtual Pentangle album in terms of sound and personnel, with the distinctive voice of Dorris Henderson replacing, as it were, Jacqui on three numbers and John tinkling away on sitar and splashing liberal doses of his distinctive low-volume wah-wah guitar about. Leader and Kinsey’s production clinches it.
Sadly, and as would be the case with much of the material both John and Bert recorded as solo artists during the Pentangle era, very little of the music on Faro Annie would have much life beyond the record. Only ‘The Cuckoo’ would feature onstage, as a duet with Terry Cox, during the final year of the Pentangle and, alongside the now Jacqui McShee sung ‘Willy O’Winsbury’, only ‘White House Blues’ would enjoy any regularity in John’s repertoire as a soloist, duo performer or in the subsequent John Renbourn Group format with Jacqui after the group’s demise. Nevertheless, it remains a wonderful snapshot of its time endowed with a rich, luxuriant sound and mellow groove at odds with the hurried nature of its execution.
* Postscript: After a 1999 CD reissue of ‘There You Go’, Dorris Henderson reappeared for another, this time final, swansong album Here I Go Again in 2003.