There are two routes to folk-rock immortality. There is the Fairport Convention path: stay on the road, swap out members so often that the family tree looks like a jungle and play every pub and village hall.
Pentangle, by contrast, reformed after a four-decade hiatus with all five original members for a handful of concerts. This year they followed the Glastonbury and Cambridge Folk festivals with a packed Royal Festival Hall. As singer Jacqui McShee said, “We don’t get out much”; when they do, their audience appreciate it all the more.
According to legend, guitarist John Renbourn picked the name Pentangle as protection against the evils of the music industry and as a nod to the then-fashionable obsession with the tarot. The symbolism is all backward, as pentacles are materialistic and earth-bound and the group anything but; better to think of the name as pointing to the equal contribution made by all five members.
Terry Cox, the drummer, and Danny Thompson, on double bass, came from jazz backgrounds, and the music reflects that. Thompson ran his fingers nimbly up and down, bending notes, swinging the beat. Cox appeared to have the abstracted air of a man tinkering in his garden shed, brushing the cymbals lightly, offering the merest tap to a drum, setting up the rhythm as much by what was not played as what was.
Of the two guitarists, Renbourn is more of a medievalist and ethno-musician, and Bert Jansch more of a bluesman, a division at its clearest on “House Carpenter”, when Renbourn climbed down to recline on a cushion with a sitar while Jansch plucked a banjo. But the two have been playing together for so long, on and off, that the roles seemed to swap and fuse.
McShee’s voice has become, if anything, more ethereal with the years: excursions into blues (from, as Renbourn commented, “the Dorking Delta”) were less convincing, but the murder ballads still shivered with threat when she sang unaccompanied the verse from “Cruel Sister” where the minstrels make a harp from the murdered girl’s breastbone.
At the end, they marked the scorching first day of August with “Pentangling”, starting in a bucolic riparian haze, then moving through extended guitar soloing into a double bass and drum duet, before returning for a second verse of trotting country-blues: their whole range crystallised into a single song.