Pentangle – review

Royal Festival Hall, London

"I'm going to see Pentangle tonight," I confide to a friend. "I'm getting a whiff of metal," she offers, not unreasonably. Despite the name, Pentangle are not swords 'n' sorcery types; rather, they are the jazz outriders of the 60s folk revival, reunited once again.

The story goes that they were wryly named to invoke protection against the evil spirits of the music industry; it is the emblem on the shield in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, symbolising faithfulness and the so-called "endless knot". That everyone in the 60s was mildly into the occult didn't hurt, either, especially in America, where this most British band did rather well, in part through relentless touring.

And there were – and still are – five of them: warbling damsel Jacqui McShee, yin and yang guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, and the distinctly non-metallic rhythm section of upright bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox, jazz musicians by calling. They were a supergroup of sorts when they formed back in 1967, drawing from what Rob Young in Electric Eden, his overview of the avant-garde within traditional music, calls the "mulch" of the London folk revival scene.

On stage tonight they assume their time-honoured formation – at the centre, McShee in a cowled teal gown, looking every inch like Morgan Le Fay. Thompson – the most extraordinary bassist – plonks and prangs sepulchrally low notes and ad libs behind her on the left. ("Tonight comes courtesy of Saga," he guffaws at the start.) Cox is behind McShee, too, doing everything, it seems, but keeping time. Cox doesn't play so much as adjust things rhythmically, like a pernickety engineer cosseting a wayward jazz machine. He begins the enthralling "Hunting Song" (version from back in the day here) by playing on a small xylophone. It comes as a shock to learn that, before Pentangle reunited for their 40th anniversary in 2008, Cox was running a restaurant in Spain and hadn't played the drums for years.

Pentangle's 2008 Royal Festival Hall reunion brought them back to the venue of the live half of their Sweet Child double album (1968). By many accounts, that performance was not without its rough edges. But the musicianship on display during tonight's two-set engagement is awe-inspiring, virtuosic and – still – somewhat perverse: an endless knot of strings, disparate influences and textures.

"House Carpenter", for instance, is Pentangle's version of a traditional song sometimes called "The Daemon Lover", which finds a banjo (associated, in the popular imagination, with the American South) trading licks with a sitar. It is a ye olde folk/Deep South/subcontinental fusion that still sounds ear-bogglingly weird. "We're really going back to the 60s," quips McShee as the sitar is brought on, before kicking off with a shivery a capella vocal.

The band's celebrated guitarists, Renbourn and Jansch, are out front, a study in physical and musical contrasts. Portly, with a shock of white hair, the scholarly Renbourn plays the florid parts. He gamely manoeuvres himself on to a flowery cushion on the floor to manhandle the sitar.

Jansch, meanwhile – author of multiple solo albums, latterly special guest tour-mate of Neil Young, and a guitarist so good Jimmy Page allegedly stole his licks – is dark, sinewy and contained. He plays mantric, circular themes, switching to banjo for a handful of deeply satisfying bluesier numbers in the band's second set (from the "Dorking Delta", smiles Renbourn). Jansch's ongoing cancer treatment means that this small handful of Pentangle live dates – Glastonbury, Cambridge folk festival and tonight's outing – are especially poignant.

No one quite remembers exactly why Renbourn and Jansch fell out for 35 years, but a new folk revival – especially among US players as disparate as Joanna Newsom and Fleet Foxes – throughout the past decade laid the path nicely for Pentangle's return. Recently the two men have been writing songs for a putative new Pentangle album.

Recreating some notionally pure iteration of folk songs held little interest for any of the participants in their heyday. Forty years on, the song remains the same. Instead, Pentangle knock ancient chestnuts into strange avant-garde shapes, adding their own compositions to all the Trad Arrs.

"Pentangling", their theme tune, captures them at their most alluring, with wordless exchanges between guitars and bass almost trumping the singer's fluency.

McShee, meanwhile, gleefully introduces folk song after folk song about women left high and dry. "Cruel Sister" is "the doomiest and gloomiest song I know", she says. It features envy, murder and the refashioning of a dead girl's body into a musical instrument. And, of course, a sitar.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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