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He's modest, but he's still influential 40 years later

In a rare U.S. visit, Bert Jansch, the reserved, Scottish folk guitarist and singer lauded by Donovan and Jimmy Page, will help open Arthur Nights in L.A.

October 18, 2006|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

Bert Jansch should be accustomed to younger musicians standing in awe of him. After all, it was 40 years ago when no less than Donovan paid homage to the folk guitarist-singer with the songs "Bert's Blues" and "House of Jansch."

And Donovan is only three years younger than his fellow Glasgow native, now 63.

Since then, there's been a steady stream of pilgrims to that musical house. Jimmy Page cites Jansch's 1965 debut album as revelatory. Neil Young has compared Jansch's innovations on acoustic guitar to Jimi Hendrix's electric revolution. Former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who recorded with Jansch a few years ago, identifies Jansch's playing as among the most influential in both folk and rock.

Today, with '60s British folk embraced by a new (if still non-mainstream) generation on both sides of the Atlantic, Jansch is once again being lionized by a devoted crop of fresh faces, including English singer Beth Orton and American neo-psychedelic folk avatar Devendra Banhart, both of whom appear on Jansch's new album, "The Black Swan" -- along with a literal new generation member, Jansch's son Adam.

"In a way I've gotten used to it," Jansch says of his stature. "I suppose after years and years, it's all dawning on me, all this influence stuff. At first it was quite frightening, with all the influential persons in the world. I'm the last person to consider myself being an influence on anybody."

Nonetheless, a rare Jansch U.S. visit will be the centerpiece Thursday of the opening of Arthur Nights, a four-day festival of outsider, alternative and experimental music being presented by Arthur magazine at the Deco-era Palace Theatre downtown. Also on Thursday's bill are Banhart and his band, which includes "The Black Swan" producer Noah Georgeson, and the group Espers, members of which also play on the album.

The reserved modesty will be no surprise to anyone familiar with Jansch's music. His playing and singing alike are understated, earthy, never flashy -- regardless of Young's Hendrix reference -- yet it's remarkably expressive. Over the course of 23 solo albums and his role in the distinguished English folk band Pentangle, he's held a consistent level of achievement, his hallmark integration of folk, blues and jazz styles seamless and virtuosic, yet colored by restraint.

And while he's hardly a pop star, fan devotion can be obsessive. A decade ago Orton harbored fantasies of getting Jansch to play on her debut album, making such efforts to meet him that she says she felt like "somewhat of a stalker." Those attempts failed, but she did finally meet him at a festival this year and struck up a friendship. She eventually asked for (and received) guitar lessons from him, the two played a few live shows together and she wound up doing guest spots on three songs for "The Black Swan."

"Maybe the reason someone like Bert endures is because he is open whilst at the same time staying true to who he is and what he stands for," Orton says. "Because he is not 'flashy' and ego-led; because he has humility -- which might also be the reason he is not so widely recognized. But to those who know the music, it comes as no surprise he is an influence to many."

In England lately, Jansch has come in for wider recognition through several TV specials, a BBC Radio 2 Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001 and English monthly Mojo Magazine's Merit Award in June. His influence in the U.S. came as a surprise to him, because he's spent little time here.

"I found it when I first heard Devendra," he says. "It was a bit of a shock to me. He seemed to be of South American origins, yet I could hear my own guitar playing in it as well. Strange mixture of stuff I found quite intriguing."

Georgeson, a longtime fan who has produced albums by Banhart and harp-playing sprite Joanna Newsom, sought to incorporate the young acolytes without interfering with Jansch's aesthetic.

"What he does is this continuum of music," Georgeson says. "He just draws from so many things and is able to state it simply. And what he does doesn't really belong to any particular time period."

Jansch is comfortable with that assessment of his continued appeal.

"To me it's all the things I've learnt over the years, slowly collected, collated," he says. "As for my actual way of playing guitar and everything, it hasn't changed at all from the very beginning."

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Arthur Nights

Who: Bert Jansch, Devendra Banhart, Espers, Watts Prophets, others

Where: Palace Theatre, 630 S. Broadway, Los Angeles

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Price: $24

Contact: (866) 468-3399, arthurnights.imeem.com

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