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Archive 2008: Pentangle.

Royal Festival Hall
Sunday 29 June 2008

When I was but a wee slip of a lad, fresh out of three cornered trousers, I distinctly recall putting aside my Monkees singles in favour of something much more meaningful and enlightening. I dutifully handed over the best part of three weeks paper round money for a copy of an LP called BASKET OF LIGHT by a folk group called The Pentangle. I bought it primarily because it featured a song I'd heard on the radio called Light Flight which was both mysterious and hypnotic and was a world away from Pleasant Valley Sunday, which was beginning to irritate me. I was 13.

Sitting cross-legged in my suburban bedroom, imagining it to be my very own bohemian bedsit, whilst our dad and our mam sat downstairs watching The Man In A Suitcase, I found the images on this LP cover enchanting. The spotlights from what appeared to be the Royal Albert Hall illuminating a small gathering of five people on stage, two guitarists hunched over their instruments, a rhythm section of double bass and drums to the rear, and a seated blonde in a mini skirt sitting centre stage all went towards what attracted me to the LP; this and the two line italicised inscription printed on the inside - 'all the instruments played on this album are acoustic'.

Acoustic - that was a good word to discover in 1969, when my little ears had been treated to at least a decade of electric guitars courtesy of Hank to Hendrix. I was still too young to be hitching down to London to see stuff like this, but the desire was there nevertheless. There's been one or two incarnations of The Pentangle, later shortened to just Pentangle, over the subsequent years, but I have to confess my heart was always set on seeing the five musicians who appeared in black and white on the inside of the BASKET OF LIGHT sleeve. As the years went by, the opportunities of seeing the original line up of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Jacqui McShee, Danny Thompson and Terry Cox together on one stage grew slimmer and my chances of ever seeing them increasingly doubtful.

A glimmer of hope came along in 2007 when the band reformed for a special appearance at that year's BBC Folk Awards where they picked up a lifetime achievement award. I attached my ears to the radio on the night they broadcast the awards and even though the performance was slightly dodgy I was once again excited at the prospect of a proper reunion. Unfortunately, that performance sank without trace and once again I saw my chances of seeing Pentangle live swirl down the drain in a clockwise direction.

Coincidentally, I met John Renbourn backstage at a gig in February, where I desperately wanted to ask him the big question and was both surprised and delighted to hear that he was due to be rehearsing with Bert Jansch the following week for a planned concert with the original five members at the Royal Festival Hall in London. I was eager to find out who I had to kill to get a ticket and found that the concert was already sold out. Unbeknownst to me, my son had already acquired a couple of tickets for the concert and he was waiting for the right time to tell me, knowing how impatiently I wait patiently. The fidgeting began almost immediately.

That fidgeting ended tonight on the South Bank of the Thames after an afternoon spent basking in the sun. The South Bank was buzzing with accordion/sax duets, grown men making sand sculptures, one of which was in the shape of a frying pan containing a full English breakfast, several street performers ranging from a concert violinist playing Vivaldi to a guy doing bird impressions and hip hop dancing on the beach (yes the South Bank of the Thames has more beach than Cleethorpes). With the Waterloo Sunset fast approaching, I was drawn eagerly to the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall whereupon I met with Pentangle fans new and old, contemporary musicians eager to hear this legendary band play once again and those curious to know what all the fuss was about. At one point I spied a black fedora under which the unmistakable profile of Danny Thompson loomed, signing ancient LP gramophone records next to the artists' entrance. I spoke to Wizz Jones in the foyer, who was concealing his excitement as only a legend can. A bestubbled Ian Anderson of froots editorial famage was milling around front stage chatting to photographers with apparent eager anticipation. It had all the hallmarks of one of those folk royalty evenings waiting to happen. Upon flicking through the handsome programme I pondered upon the fact that although these five musicians are now forty years older, time has been considerably kind and we have been spared the grief of having to attend a 'Square' concert or worse, one in the shape of a 'Triangle', but can instead relish in the excitement of a completely intact and magnificently well-proportioned Pentangle. 

Walking out onto the Festival Hall stage tonight to rapturous applause, these five familiar faces, most of whom have conducted themselves rather well over the years, making impressive contributions to music both as solo artists or as major collaborative figures, on the rock, jazz, folk and world music stages, as well as in one case, the Iberian culinary world, seemed quite at ease with the prospect of remembering the twenty-odd songs that haven't really been out to play for forty years.

Starting with The Time Has Come, Pentangle soon fell into their trademark groove, with their very distinct sound, which sounded just as fresh today as it did back in the Sixties. Refusing to stand on ceremony the band then launched into their one and only 'hit' Light Flight with its complicated time signature ala Dave Brubeck, delighting the audience who had gathered at this sell-out event. The audience were silent during each performance and ecstatic during the applause and as usual I copped for the seat directly behind the guy who felt it necessary to whoop and holler in between every song once the majority of the audience had once again settled down. Even the mention of the name 'Cyril Tawny' got a loud 'whoa', followed by the nervous titter of a steadily growing impatient stalls audience. Bless his cotton socks, he was just a Pentangle fan having fun.

Towards the end of the first set, which had already seen the resurrection of Market Song, Once I Had A Sweetheart and Hunting Song, John Renbourn challenged himself to a sort of half lotus position on the floor in order to play the Sitar on House Carpenter, whilst Bert tuned up his banjo. It could've all gone horribly wrong at that point but it didn't. On the contrary, it was magnificent.

Bert could be forgiven for one or two short bouts of amnesia, forgetting just two lines throughout the entire two-hour programme. It's been a long time since these songs came out to play and no one in the building to my knowledge minded in the least.

The second hour-long set featured more familiar songs from each of their albums including Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, Bruton Town and the band's signature tune Pentangling, before rounding everything off with the gorgeous Willy O'Winsbury and a final encore of Will The Circle Be Unbroken.

Not normally nostalgic, I have to say that my heart fluttered occasionally during each of the bands songs, when I realised that the boxes above the side stalls resembled those on the cover of that album I bought in the Sixties, and the five people up on stage sitting in exactly the same positions, with the exception of Jacqui, who now chooses to stand, were those same five people who I had longed to see back together for so long. I realised that I did eventually get the opportunity to be one of those lucky people on the cover, albeit forty years on. I guess we're all forty years older but the enchanting sound of Pentangle has aged very little indeed.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky