Pentangle: interview

Reformed ’60s folk-jazz stars Pentangle, rehearsing for their comeback show, talk to Chris Parkin about splitting up, dozing off and why they’re not rock ’n’ rollers

  • ‘Few places offer a more charming, convivial way to spend an evening than Pan y Vino,’ says an online review of Pentangle drummer Terry Cox’s fine Menorcan restaurant, which, past retirement age, he sold only very recently. Nestled somewhere in this glowing appraisal of Pan y Vino’s ambience and culinary skills, our reviewer also mentions that, ‘back in London, Cox was a session musician’.

    A bit of an understatement, that. Cox’s drumming can be heard on the likes of ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Live and Let Die’. Most crucially, though – for fans of the groovy and surprisingly unwanky sub-genre of folk-jazz – the scampish Cox was half of the rhythm section, with bassist Danny Thompson, that drove Pentangle through their great albums.

    The band’s lifetime-achievement teapot, or whatever it was they were handed at the BBC Folk Awards last year, the excitement surrounding their brief set at that event, the fandom of Devendra Banhart and a festival tailor-made for them (Green Man, which they’re playing in August) have all encouraged Pentangle to hang about – 35 years after Cox, Thompson, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee called it a day. The way things are shaping up, Cox wouldn’t have had any spare time to charm Menorca.##mou##

    Happily, Pentangle’s reformation is not all about spondulicks (‘the worst job was one I took for money,’ reasons Cox). Nor will they revisit any embarrassing slogans, youthful pretensions or a sound that forces apologists to whisper ‘you probably had to be there’ before the gig. As they relearn their willowy, tradition-rooted songs in Acton, Thompson’s soft bass lines rolling, Jansch and Renbourn’s bluesy guitars duelling, Pentangle are doing it for the joy and the challenge.

    ‘Unfinished business is the one for me,’ says Cox in the tea break. ‘I always felt there was so much potential that we never achieved, and that bugged me.’

    ‘We’ve had to learn how to play it all over again,’ says Jansch, relishing the technical side of reforming as someone schooled by Davy Graham might. ‘The early albums aren’t even in stereo, you know? You can’t distinguish between mine and John’s parts.’

    ‘I’m playing a part that’s really unbelievable – it’s actually his,’ laughs Renbourn, pointing at Jansch.

    Drawn together like that metallic gloop in ‘Terminator 2’, Pentangle first found each other in the jazz, blues and folk clubs of early ’60s Soho, with real ale, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and the blues all providing their philosophical meeting points. It’s no wonder that they bristle when anybody mentions ‘folk-rock’.

    ‘We’re not a folk-rock band,’ says Cox. ‘Me and Danny came from jazz, nothing to do with rock ’n’ roll at all.’

    ‘The thing is, rock bands don’t really swing, do they? And we do. If I’d been just a folk singer, it wouldn’t have worked,’ adds McShee, who, climbing out of a picture that’s framed her as a folk-hippy all these years, tells us that she prefers Laura Nyro to Joni Mitchell.

    Renbourn sees Pentangle as ‘oddball’, while the Danes, says McShee, billed them as ‘the latest rock ’n’ roll band from England'. Whatever the genre, Jo Lustig – folk promoter cum entrepreneurial whiz – saw the potential and made them work their arses off to meet it. They peaked, commercially at least, when their 1969 album, ‘Basket of Light’, hit No 5 at a time when Top 10 records sold more than nine copies.

    ‘He comes up a lot in our life,’ says Renbourn. ‘I picked up a book recently about Jack Kerouac’s correspondence with a girl he lived with when he wrote “On the Road”. I thought: I can’t buy another Kerouac book, but I picked it up and the first thing I read was, “never trust Jo Lustig”. He was a character, Jo, and he certainly promoted us well.’

    Tired of touring, invariably sozzled and with no time to write, the band ended in ’73 amid reports of battling egos and much mythologised on stage snoozing.

    ‘That happened once,’ sighs McShee. ‘You know when you doze in a chair and you wake up and you’ve been asleep for ten seconds? We’d had a bad night. John and Bert’s guitars had been stolen and we were all miserable. We went for a curry, which is fatal. Danny was doing a solo and I went like that [slumps her head] and woke up in a panic. All of a sudden it’s, “Did you all fall asleep?” ’

    As elder statespeople of wyrd-folk, whether they like it or not, Pentangle have more control these days. They recently re-programmed a box-set to impress a new generation rather than treat older fans, and they’ve been adding dates to their RFH gig, 40 years since they recorded ‘Sweet Child’ there, as and when they like.

    Confident and playful, the rehearsal room is ego-free. McShee sings a saucy Nelly Lutcher number, Thompson enthuses about New Orleans jazz, and Renbourn painstakingly tunes his sitar with a little help from Jansch. It’s a joy to see these long-in-the-tooth musicians working with more joie de vivre than your average indie-joe.

    But what about Cox? In his own words, ‘serving chips isn’t exactly the same,’ so he’s been practising hard for the past year to ‘get some chops together’. The way Pentangle sound, Cox’s (re)new(ed) venture is just as warm and welcoming as Pan y Vino.

    Pentangle play RFH on Jun 29, and Lyceum Theatre on July 7.

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