Upstairs on the Square, Richhill, Co Armagh
In short: two dexterous acoustic guitar players on a 37-date UK and Ireland tour performing the music of John Renbourn (d. 2015) and doing so with passion, verve and brilliance, lightly worn.
Clive Carroll worked extensively with John on tours and on film soundtrack recordings. He displays great affection for the man and has fun tales to recount – indeed, it may not be entirely my imagination that the more Dariush retunes (many of the numbers being in fiendish altered tunings), the better the anecdotes become. Somehow, bafflingly, Clive is able to re-tune in a matter of seconds. While talking. Dariush is best known, perhaps, as a stunning interpreter of Bert Jansch’s music – Bert having been, of course, John’s guitar colleague in the Pentangle (1967¬–72) – and even stepped into Bert’s role within ‘Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle’ at a festival show in 2019.
Bar one event at a brewery in Scotland, the tour began in Ireland, north and south. I went to see the show at Rostrevor Folk Club on Monday 25 September, an hour’s drive from home (Belfast), and enjoyed it so much I drove to Richhill on Wednesday (50 minutes’ drive this time) and brought my pal Anna along. There was a show in Belfast on the 27th but I feared it would be full of guitar/gear bores. Whether my fears were founded, I don’t know – but certainly the two shows ‘down the country’ were performed very largely to people who were simply regulars at gigs in those places, where enthusiasts put on acoustic music events once in a while. Some of the audience – from Clive’s onstage enquiries – had never heard of Renbourn; others had a passing familiarity with Pentangle or the like. So, the success of the shows depended not on reputations or gear admiration but on the quality of only two things: the material and the performance. Both were fabulous.
Both nights began with ‘Orlando’, a stately Bert and John duo classic – a homage to their cat – from 1966, followed by ‘Red’s Favourite’ from the same record – a pugnacious bluesy thing, not a tune I care for particularly for clearly fun to play and we learn that its title comes from the bloke upstairs (‘Red’) to Bert and John’s flat at the time, who conversely didn’t care for any of their stuff except this one. From there, the set went on to include solo performances from both Clive and Dariush along with staggeringly complex duets. The styles of music ranged from country blues to the Renaissance via ‘Celtic doom’ as Clive puts it, and a hillbilly diversion into Doc Watson territory on one tune. All are delivered with aplomb, panache and other words of that ilk, and even the austere stuff comes with infectious smiles from Clive and witty introductions.
Renbourn had a fondness for Early Music pastiches, his earliest being 1966’s ‘Lady Nothynge’s Toye Puffe’ (a quadruple tautology, we learn). Renbourn presented an updated duet version of this, titled ‘New Nothynge’, on his album ‘The Nine Maidens’ in 1985, that version having been scored for himself and Jansch to play at one of their rare but occasional shared concert billings a few years earlier. This is the arrangement that Clive and Dariush play and it’s sensational. Other duet highlights include ‘The Pelican’ and ‘No Exit’ – major key majesty and Mingus-esque blues, respectively.
Some of the other duets in the show, like ‘Estampie’, are unrecorded Renbourn tunes into which Clive decided to breathe life (recorded on his new double album, ‘The Abbott’ – 27 Renbourn tunes with around 20 supporting musicians involved, including Dariush).
The Rostrevor set list asked a lot of the audience only once, when Clive put a lengthy solo workout of Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘Little Niles’ back to back with something minor-key and doomy, the title of which I forget. At Richhill, Clive – who confessed to having around three hours of Renbourn material at his fingertips – substituted his truly extraordinary extension of Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ (a tune that Bert and John recorded in 1966 and upon which John himself later built grandiose turrets in concerts in the 90s). Clive joked that we needed to strap in, that it wouldn’t be one we’d be whistling on the way home. He does himself a disservice, I think – the musical pictures he paints in this piece are utterly absorbing. Doubtless guitar bores would ask him how he does this or that bit of technical wizardry, but it succeeds to my mind purely as *music*. Another request (from me – well, he *did* ask us at that point) for ‘The Hermit’, a breezy number with a frisson of bittersweet from the late 70s, brought us back to the world of mortal-level musical brilliance.
Occasional vocals from both players brought a nice leavening to the set, with Dariush’s ‘Buckets of Rain’, learned from the Wizz Jones arrangement, being a particular highlight. While Dariush is the ‘junior partner’ in this tour – the Renbourn resurrectionist vision being Clive’s and Clive being the more established name on the road – his role is essential and the show benefits greatly from the variety offered by the two men’s differing skills, musical leanings and voices (both literally and on their instruments). Clive’s vocal on Renbourn’s mid-60s calling card ‘I Know My Babe’ is perhaps a tad overcooked, not naturally suited to him, but his restrained vocal on Jackson Frank’s ‘Blues Run the Game’ – a mid-60s Brit-folk classic written by a visiting American and recorded separately by both Bert and John – is something of a revelation. Rather than aping Bert or John’s interpretations, it seems to me that he finds his own way into it, slows it down to find the soul of the song and delivers a greater sense of its author’s woe. It could easily have been delivered as a speedy folk-blues-by-numbers, but I was impressed that it wasn’t.
(Incidentally, speaking of ‘I Know My Babe’, a 1967 Renbourn performance at the legendary London folk club Les Cousins is viewable online. Even more incidentally, Ian A. Anderson has compiled a forthcoming 3CD Les Cousins box set for Cherry Red featuring tracks from many of those who performed there along with an extensive essay.)
I should say that the venue in Richhill, ‘Upstairs on the Square’ – an upper room at Groucho’s, a woody and inviting public house in what is more or less a two-street town (we drove through it before doubling back to find the second street) – is extraordinary. There are no seats, only huge leather sofas – about two dozen of the things. Like a folk club in a sofa warehouse. It made me think that Clive & Daz were perhaps missing a trick by not recording a live album there: ‘Celtic Doom in a Comfy Room’. 😀 The photo above was taken by Anna, momentarily standing up from the second sofa back.
We were so deeply sunk into the sofa that I’ve really no idea! Regular folks from Richhill, I guess – certainly, people who responded very warmly to their evening’s entertainment.
It made me think..
As someone involved in consulting/curating for reissue labels, I’m told that the market for Bert Jansch and Pentangle reissues and archive trawls is very healthy but the market for Renbourn is not. I’ve no idea why that should be the case, save that John was an essentially instrumental artist. Maybe that makes a difference? Clive’s efforts to re-present a lot of the music by and associated with his late friend is admirable – and a lot of it is music that Renbourn himself never performed live. Who knows, maybe it will reignite some fresh interest in the man’s own recordings? These things find their own level in time.