‘SOMETHING happens when you freeze people in time like this. A cynic might say, ‘It’s just a 20-year-old film about a dead guy. Why bother?’ Well, I don’t think any other record of Bert’s life exists in this way.”
The Bert that filmmaker Jan Leman is talking about is Bert Jansch, the Glasgow-born acoustic guitarist who emerged from the early years of the folk revival to influence players as diverse as Jimmy Page, Graham Coxon and Neil Young, not to mention legions of wannabe folk guitar stars who strove to get their fingers round Angie.
Twenty-one years ago, Leman shot a documentary about Jansch, Acoustic Routes, which appeared on BBC television, was screened at the 1992 Edinburgh Film Festival, then effectively sank from sight.
Leman had long promised Jansch, who died of lung cancer in 2011, that he would revive it, and at last a digitally remastered, greatly expanded version of the film is released next month on DVD and will be screened at certain cinemas.
Leman may have frozen Jansch in time, but there’s nothing remotely cryogenic about the footage, which vividly captures his inspired finger-picking, from the close-up thrumming strings which open the film as he and electric guitarist Peter Kirtley intertwine sinuous lines in The Parting.
The film – expanded from its original 70 to 104 minutes – is presented by Billy Connolly, who knew Jansch during his early years on the folk scene, and indeed returns to his old craft of banjo player, sitting in with Jansch for a rollicking delivery of Country Blues.
This is a documentary replete with connections, recollections and fine music, featuring interviews and playing sessions with those who influenced or were influenced by Jansch, including Davey Graham (composer of Angie, which made such an impact on Jansch’s debut album), Wizz Jones, Martin Carthy and Albert Lee.
There is a piquant return, in the company of Archie Fisher, Hamish Imlach and English singer Anne Briggs, to the Edinburgh High Street premises which once housed The Howff, a crucible of emerging talent during the early days of the Scottish folk revival.
Glasgow-born Jansch grew up in Edinburgh and all but took up residence at The Howff when he was a teenager, to be transfixed by the music of the visiting blues legend Brownie McGhee. Things come full circle, marvellously, in Acoustic Routes, as the guitarist travels to McGhee’s home at Oakland, California, and jams with him.
Other intimate musical encounters include some fine folk-baroquery from Jansch and his old Pentangle mate John Renbourn, while the band’s singer Jacqui McShee joins him, and Anne Briggs sings Blackwaterside, which Jansch learned from her and which was famously lifted, uncredited, by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
The film’s inevitably elegiac tone is heightened by the fact that three other of its interviewees – Graham, Imlach and McGhee – have since passed on.
“I hope that, in a quiet way, it acts as a memorial for them as well,” observes Leman, himself a guitarist, who got to know Jansch closely, “because we were always trying to develop this project, over about four years.”
Finally producing this expanded version is, he says, the fulfilment of a promise to the guitarist: “Bert’s health failed but we just had to keep going with it. It’s very sad that he’s not here to see it fulfilled.”
Meanwhile, to shift from guitars to voices which have been at the heart of the Scottish folk revival over the past few decades, a concert to raise funds for the annual FifeSing traditional singing festival (this year on 10-12 May See www.springthyme.co.uk/fifesing) is being held tomorrow night in The Steeple, Newburgh, featuring Pete Shepheard, Jimmy Hutchison, Chris Miles and Arthur Watson.
• Acoustic Routes screens at the Belmont Picturehouse, Aberdeen, 7 March; GFT, Glasgow, 10 March, Mareel Cinema, Lerwick, 17 March, and Cameo, Edinburgh, 18 March.
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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