Imagine, if you will, a chilly, overcast day in London, circa 1962. A young folksinger and guitarist named John Renbourn walks down the street, guitar case in hand, on his way to do a show at a neighborhood folk club. He walks by stores selling black & white TV’s, typewriters, and transistor radios. Men in suits and fedoras walk past him, a newspaper headline warns of escalating tensions in the ongoing Cuban missile crisis.
Dylan, the Beatles, and the Stones are just getting started in their careers, though most people haven’t heard of them yet. The radios in the trendier storefronts he passes play Elvis, Cliff Richard, and Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion”. The brand of music Renbourn plays, however, is part of the new “folk revival”: a type of music slowly gaining popularity, rooted in British tradition but infused with American blues and a new emphasis on technically adept guitar playing.
I imagine it would be somewhat like the Greenwich Village folk scene portrayed in the 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, only less grim and depressing (hopefully; Renbourn does sound a bit more cheerful than the character of Davis in the movie). But, I wonder if we can truly feel and picture what those times – over 50 years ago now – were like if we weren’t there. Luckily, tape was running when Renbourn performed in that club and on a handful of other live performances and informal home recordings. Mac MacLeod, a sometime accompanist of Renbourn’s, found a few of these tapes in his attic, which set this collection in motion and gave it its title, The Attic Tapes.
An important document of a gifted musician, these recordings capture the early sound of Renbourn before he joined up with Bert Jansch to eventually form legendary jazz/folk band Pentangle and before his long and varied solo career. Renbourn wrote the liner notes for The Attic Tapes, not long before his death from a heart attack earlier in 2015. He writes of the collection, “Mostly it’s me plunking – occasionally in the company of friends from way back.”
Some of those friends include a very young Beverley Martyn, long before she married acid folk pioneer John Martyn and was still Beverley Kutner, who joins Renbourn to sing Donovan’s “Picking up the Sunshine” and the traditional blues “Come Back Baby”. The aforementioned MacLeod accompanies Renbourn on harmonica on another blues standard, “Cocaine”, and sings Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too.”
The Attic Tapes is a mix of these kinds of blues and folk tunes, many of which were the standard currency of the folk artists of the day. Renbourn does a fine job on them when performing solo, as well, such as a particularly moving cover of Jackson C. Franke’s “Blues Run the Game”. These sit alongside intricate instrumental Renbourn originals “Judy”, “The Wildest Pig in Captivity”, and “Rosslyn”.
His style owes as much to old-time blues as it does to the flat-picking of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and the dazzling fingerpicking of Davy Graham. In fact, Graham was quite important to Renbourn’s evolution as a guitarist (he describes him in the notes as “near myth…above mortal jurisdiction”). He covers Graham’s “Anji” here and they duet on one track as well, a laid back live rendition of “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out”, where Renbourn shines just as much as his lauded peer.
Plunking it may be, but John Renbourn is one damn good plunker, and The Attic Tapes is a compelling chapter in his recorded history.