Pentangle – Basket Of Light (1969)
At the time that I discovered The Pentangle I was part of an acoustic house band in an Irish bar with several older guys who were thoroughly indulged in acoustic roots music. I’m still part of that house band now, all these years later, though less frequently in a covid-ravaged world. Within that initial period of learning for me, as a teenager with ears wide open, that name The Pentangle kept cropping up. Naturally, I had to toddle off to town one Saturday afternoon, when there used to be a slew of record shops, and find out why.
In amongst the likes of James Taylor, Neil Young, Carole King, The Eagles, Crosby Stills & Nash, Don McClean, Ralph McTell, and many, many others of similar ilk, my own fascinations for playing and listening to acoustic driven music was growing. The first time I pressed play on my Alba CD player with Basket Of Light in it, I was staggered by that whimsical, spiritual, unusual beat of opening track Light Flight. Definitely folky, and with echoes of fellow folk revivalists Fairport Convention, I found it electrifying. The track found commercial success as the theme tune to the 70’s BBC TV series Take Three Girls, and emerged from the pages of many musical conversations I’d been having as a hypnotising jaunt built upon a very unusual rhythmical hook. Jacqui McShee’s vocal is searing, giving the track a truly medieval feel, and the duelling guitar parts of John Renbourn and Bert Jansch are magical. The climatic harmonies are out of this world. Light Flight is just about as existential as folk music gets, which makes its commercial appeal even more surprising.
John Renbourn and Bert Jansch were both semi-familiar names to me, though at the time I had no idea why. I’d heard them banded about in muso conversation. I’d meet Renbourn many years later at a small Arts Centre gig, and a day later he drove past me and my buddy Adrian beeping his horn and shouting at us through the window. He was quite a character; ideal for a thriving, eclectic folk scene. He’d even told me that he’d been sat outside a local cafe in Southport having a coffee on the day of the gig and had spotted me walking by; he said he just knew that I’d be at his gig. The feeling was instinctive. He then told several unbelievable stories about how he had jammed with Hendrix backstage, before reluctantly signing my records. His modesty was unabashed.
Once I Had A Sweetheart is a sumptuous, traditional folk song perfectly executed, and Springtime Promises, sang by Renbourn, a bright but curious excursion enlarged by some wonderful acoustic guitar playing. Lyke-Wake Dirge – an early English poem concerning the progress of the soul in the afterlife – reeks of something close to divine. The mood is dark, but the harmonies stunningly beautiful. It was around this point during my first listen to the record that the record cover began making sense.
Train Song is a middle-eastern leaning lament for the passing of the steam train – British thematically, but borrowing from world music to demonstrate the broad musical influences on this versatile band. Hunting Song is based on the fascinating story of the magic drinking horn sent by Morgana the Fay to the court of King Arthur, sketching the numerous incidents on its way. And who doesn’t like an intertextual jaunt in amongst a fascinating folk record? Such songs show the maturity of these young (at the time) musicians, exploring history lyrically whilst painting elaborate, traditional sound-scapes.
Sally Go Round The Roses is driven by the great Danny Thompson on stand-up bass – another sincerely influential musician spawned by The Pentangle, whereas The Cuckoo is another marvellous interpretation of a folk traditional in which McShee’s vocal enters yet another phase of light flight. The closing number, House Carpenter, is a haunting Southern ballad derived from the English folk song The Daemon Lover, in which the lover is the Devil personified. It’s an uncanny ending to a revolutionary record – one that anybody who has a love for the acoustic guitar should own.
Basket Of Light is a fabulous reminder of The Pentangle’s enchanting powers. It’s very much a sound of the past, particularly now that Bert Jansch and John Renbourn are gone. A gem of a British record.
Top track trio:
Once I Had A Sweetheart