Headlining Friday night’s Three Million Tongues Festival, a diverse night of music presented by the Empty Bottle and Steve Krakow (of Galactic Zoo Dossier/Plastic Crimewave fame), was Scottish folk singer Bert Jansch. Jansch has a history both as a solo artist and as a prominent part of British band Pentangle, which had it’s heyday in the late 60s and early 70s. Owning both Pentangle albums and those from his solo career, I had a real respect and love for both his folk singing and guitar plucking and when this show was announced, I nearly fell off my chair (which, incidentally doesn’t happen as often as you might think).
In addition to playing a very few select US cities this year, Jansch also released a new gem of an album called The Black Swan, which features guest vocals from Beth Orton as well as contributions from Devendra Banhart amongst others. (This album really deserves the critical praise it has been receiving). Seemingly without any kind of official setlist, he sang a couple of songs from this album (notably the title track and “The Old Triangle”) as well as some traditional songs and covers, referencing English folk singer Anne Briggs. His demeanor was modest despite repeated cries from one audience member in particular who pleaded with him to come back to Chicago. His set seemed to fly by like his fingers across the strings which he played with such ease that made you wonder if perhaps the acoustic guitar was invented just for him. In addition, his voice has also held up and was perfectly gentle and subtly expressive in the only way someone with such history could project. Lo-key but endearing, you can understand why he’s gained a devoted albeit too small of a following over the past decades.
Steve Mackay played a full length set previous to Jansch with his Radon ensemble, nine members playing many different jazz instruments, but with an emphasis on sax and drums. Mackay’s claim to fame was his contributions on the Stooges album Fun House and he played a captivating and intensely spontaneous free jazz set in which he joined the audience at one point, making his sax sing right next to us.
Three piece Chicago band Spires that in the Sunset Rise played a much different set beforehand. Experimental with a real outsider folk feel, Spires plays a really bizarre arrangement of instruments (which also includes banjo, zither, and cello all played somewhat untraditionally) with haunted, sometimes banshee-like singing. This was my second time seeing them (the first being at the Wire festival) and since then I’ve become more acquainted with their full length releases This is Fire as well as Four Winds the Walker which at times contains a minimalist solitude that reminds one of Palace Music’s Arise Therefore.
Nick Schillace also played, opening up the night with some subdued pastoral finger plucking. It was a nice start and rather laid back and acoustic as was, of course, the much later headliner Bert Jansch. Though, without vocals, I ended up missing what sometimes is my main love of a song: the singer’s voice and the way the lyrics flow around the melody lines.