The last time Bert Jansch played in public was at the Royal Festival Hall. In the summer of 2011, gravely ill and in considerable pain, he joined the other members of Pentangle for an emotional concert. He died a few weeks later.
It is a measure of how much he was not only admired by his peers but loved that the stage filled again for this celebration with such stellar names, and not only from his peers in the folk revival. This was a celebration that could throw Donovan away almost as a support act, and allow Gordon Giltrap only the briefest of instrumentals. Neil Young appeared on video, singing “Needle of Death” inside a vintage record-your-own-voice booth.
The guests could have filled the evening with Jansch covers. Instead, they did something more interesting, tracing the influences on their friend as well. Ralph McTell opened with a version of “Angie”, the fingerpicking talisman written by Davey Graham and adopted by Jansch. Jacqui McShee, his Pentangle bandmate, recalled them queueing to shake the hand of Miles Davis; and there was always as much of jazz in his playing as there was of folk. “I’ve Got a Feeling”, which McShee sang with a quartet of piano, saxophone, drums and bass, was built on the chassis of Davis’s “All Blues”, and her subsequent “Cruel Sister” replaced Jansch’s obsessive guitar pattern with a lyrical babbling brook of piano. Danny Thompson recalled how Jansch “was an enormous Charlie Mingus fan”, and played “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, Mingus’s lament for Lester Young, now in lament for Jansch, the double bass solo resonant as a coffin.
But there was more than jazz. Martin Simpson, acting as compere, threw in Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” and Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”, sliding up and down the frets. McTell returned with a song about Annie Briggs passing “Blackwaterside” on to Jansch, as an introduction to Martin Carthy and Lisa Knapp’s rendition of that song. Jansch, Simpson has noted, was “a magical man … occasionally a shambolic man”. The last person one would have expected to be shambolic was the reliable yeoman Carthy; but here he forgot the words of “Rosemary Lane”, restarted, went wrong again, checked the lyrics on an iPad, and was only rescued by Knapp endearingly playing the part of a human music stand.
Robert Plant – enough of a fan once to have bearded Jansch in his dressing room – sang “Go Your Way My Love” accompanied by Bernard Butler on electric guitar. There was a nagging amplifier buzz, which Plant imperiously ignored, his eerie baritone croon fragmenting into Middle Eastern microtones. For “Morning Dew” he unexpectedly produced from the wings the song’s author, Canadian singer Bonnie Dobson, who sang the farewell to lost friends with the slightest touch of vibrato while Plant played hand drums, taking the third verse and harmonising with her on the last chorus.
Wizz Jones paid the most memorable tribute to Jansch’s songwriting with a version of “High Days”, one of his last compositions. Tellingly, Jansch was blaming himself for not having been a good enough friend to someone who died; blaming himself, as Jones said, entirely unnecessarily.