DCSIMG

The guitar men

Unusually for a musical legend, Bert Jansch is not one for a fuss. When the BBC celebrated his 60th birthday with a televised concert last year, the revolutionary folk guitarist felt a bit awkward more than anything else. "It was quite nerve-wracking for me," he says. "It’s taken the BBC a hell of a long time, why do I have to be 60 years old before they get round to it?"

Perhaps the delay is because Jansch is only now receiving the acclaim he deserves. His vibrant, evocative playing may have helped kickstart the folk revival in the 1960s but it has taken a new generation of fans - among them rock guitarists such as Bernard Butler and Johnny Marr - to push him reluctantly back into the spotlight. Next month, Jansch and Butler will take to the stage of the Barrowland in Glasgow for what seems certain to be a highlight of the Celtic Connections festival. At first glance, it seems an odd pairing: the uncompromising folk master matched up with Butler, the one-time Suede guitar prodigy, solo artist and half of McAlmont & Butler, currently employed as producer by punk urchins the Libertines.

Sitting in his basement flat in North-West London, his wall covered with guitars, Jansch is endearingly vague about Butler. "He’s a very good guitar player, though it’s not really my kind of songs, to tell you the truth," he says of Butler’s own music. The pair have been playing together for some years, however, since a documentary-maker introduced them in the late 1990s.

"After two minutes of meeting him, we were playing together," he continues. "It’s not usually quite as fast as that. Most guitar players find me a bit daunting to play with, because they never know quite what to expect. There’s nothing planned."

It might also be something to do with the fact that Jansch is a genius and an idol to many of his younger collaborators. He seems too shy and reticent to acknowledge as much, though he admits that, "My whole life was the guitar. Still is."

Perhaps conscious of revealing too much, he changes tack. "I was really amazed that Bernard was into it. I didn’t know I was actually being heard by people of his generation."

An uncommonly harsh doorbell announces, at this point, Butler’s arrival. He wanders into the room following Jansch’s wife, Loren, and immediately spots a bizarre new guitar: a plank with a kind of plastic outline, a built-in speaker and headphone socket that seems anathema to a traditionalist like Jansch.

"What’s that?"

"I knew they’d start straight away," says Loren indulgently. "Yamaha sent it on for Bert to check out. You can practise on it without annoying your mum and dad."

Butler strums at it indolently. "Something different, innit?" "It’s supposed to be for practise," says Jansch apologetically. "Have you seen the other one in the suede case," adds Loren. "The case is lovely. I want to wear it."

Opening it up, Butler lifts out a Yamaha acoustic with gold trim and abalone inlay. It is preposterously flash. "Blimey," he says. Jansch laughs. "I know, that’s what I said."

"They gave him that for his birthday," explains Loren. "It’s like 3,000 worth of guitar."

"I wouldn’t go onstage with it," notes Jansch unnecessarily.

Looking up from the guitar, Butler is amused. "Blimey, you’ve done well, haven’t you? It’s like a gold watch for guitar players."

This goes on for a while: gossiping over guitars; Butler gently ribbing his hero. It’s strange to think Butler spent the previous week in the studio producing the chaotic Libertines’ second album, far away from the apparent calm of Jansch’s world.

"No, Bert’s the king of rock’n’roll, the Libertines are just skirting round the edges," Butler laughs. "Everything can be intense, it doesn’t matter who’s involved. I have to be on my toes every bit as much when I’m playing with Bert as when I’m watching the Libertines careering round the studio, worrying for my life."

Butler was introduced to Jansch’s music just over a decade ago, when Geoff Travis (Rough Trade label boss and, now, Butler’s manager) suggested he check him out.

"I’d never heard an acoustic played like that," he recalls. "It’s like a great blues record: the atmosphere’s created not by the preciseness or the way it’s recorded but by the movement, the sense that it’s a one off. It’s not unusual over the years for rock musicians to take a couple of leaves out of Bert’s book and I suppose Geoff saw me in that lineage. It directly inspired my playing - I’ve tried mercilessly to utilise it."

Having played together on Jansch’s last two albums (Crimson Moon and Edge Of A Dream), the pair clearly get on well - well enough that they don’t have to waste time flattering each other too much. Jansch puts their ongoing collaboration down to geography - they live fairly close to one another - before admitting, "We like what we hear. It’s quite a natural thing."

They’re similar, though, in that neither seems entirely comfortable being the focus of attention.

"Yeah, I should think so," concedes Jansch. "Maybe in my youth we might have been more similar. I can hear things in Bernard’s playing that point to where he’s coming from.

"I can recognise the different approaches. But I’m sure the only difference between us really is the generation."

"I think the reason we ended up here is we’ve had the chance to get to know each other and play," says Butler. "I’ve been involved in a way that other people haven’t. I’m always a bit insecure about Bert’s crowd: ‘Who’s this sucker coming onstage and messing it up?’ But it thrills me at the same time, because I know I’ve got to do something good."

In December, Butler’s first group Suede split up, some nine years after he left them and effectively ended their creative usefulness. Butler missed all the farewell shows and send-offs - "I was watching the telly," he claims.

"But I did think, how the f*** did I get here? Do all these things link up? It makes me feel really good. Bert’s obviously had a much longer and more colourful career but my short one has been pretty colourful as well. You can’t predict the things that happen and what you end up doing. I never thought when I started listening to Bert that, more than sensing an affinity, I’d actually add to what he does. It’s thrilling to know you can do that. And I’m really looking forward to this gig, even if I haven’t a clue what we’re going to do."

Jansch looks up from his tea and offers the sort of pragmatic reassurance that he must have given to daunted sparring partners countless times over the past four decades. "Just get up there," he says gently. "That’s all you have to do."

• Bert Jansch and Bernard Butler play the Barrowland, Glasgow, on 23 January, as part of Celtic Connections. See Friday’s Scotsman for a preview of the festival. Kenneth Walton will return next week.

 
 
 

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