Real time-warp stuff” is how John Renbourn described the twenty performances heard on John Renbourn: The Attic Tapes (Riverboat Records). Among the treasures exhumed from the attic of guitarist Mac MacLeod: a recording of Davy Graham’s fingerstyle showpiece “Anji” in a tape box dated 1962. Renbourn would’ve then been only 18, yet his signature style was already stunningly developed.
Renbourn’s greatest fame came later in Pentangle, a unique ensemble blending folk, jazz and hints of eastern music in a subtle chamber music setting. Yet Renbourn was restlessly absorbing and interpreting disparate influences both before and long after Pentangle. He was one of England’s most inventive guitar heroes, as well as a keenly observant wit, a trait evident in his liner notes: “If you had an acoustic guitar you were `folk’ and owning an electric usually meant you had a kind benefactor,” he wrote.
The Attic Tapes brings together both `live’ performances and home recordings made prior to Renbourn’s first 1966 album. There’s a casual low-fi reel-to-reel-era warmth about the sound, though nicely remastered. It matches the music, even allowing for the striking maturity of the youthful Renbourn’s playing. Nicely surprising are some pleasant vocals by one who tended to disparage his singing. Long time fans will recognize songs (“Blues Run the Game,” “Candy Man”) he kept in his repertoire till the end.
Artists often review their beginnings as they prepare, consciously or otherwise, to exit. Renbourn meticulously selected the tracks for The Attic Tapes, performances that captured not only the best of his own early playing but voices of people he accompanied (Beverley Martyn and the influential guitarist- singer Davy Graham, to name two). The recordings, he wrote, were “representative of what was happening to me at the time and a reflection of the general scene” in London’s folk music underground. This music, drenched deep in American blues, was yet stamped with a uniquely English sensibility and a technical sophistication drawn in part from Renbourn’s classical guitar and early music studies. His distinctive sound earned what Renbourn dismisses in his liner notes as “the unfortunate epithet `folk baroque.’” Call it what you will, his style was echoed by hosts of fingerstyle guitarists across Europe and America. Sadly, the label was set to send the finished artwork for The Attic Tapes to Renbourn when the news of his unexpected passing came in March. He was 70.
That makes The Attic Tapes something of a bittersweet coda to Renbourn’s career. But that’s not to say the music isn’t a sheer delight, an exuberant postcard from those scruffy early days when Renbourn was a self-described “wandering, hitch-hiking folkie.”