Hot town, summer in the city. A steamy August night and the twenty-somethings of London town sit sipping lager gloating on the roof terrace of the Royal Festival Hall enjoying their place at the centre of the universe...
Inside its a slightly more refined affair as acid fold legends Pentangle reunite for one of just three gigs (the others being the Cambridge folk and Glastonbury festivals). Fitting indeed that they choose the Royal Festival Hall given their recording of some of the album Sweet Child in this very place. The audience is less male and less beardy than you might imagine. True, there aren't many teenagers hanging around, but there is a fair smattering of all ages 30 up and the ladies are out in force too, showing the wide appeal of the recent folk revival
Things start in a fairly subdued fashion before the original line up of Bert Jansch (guitar), Danny Thompson (double bass), Terry Cox (drums), John Renbourn (guitar) and Jacqui McShee (vocals) play their 'only hit' Light Flight second song in. Its a little ramshackle to be honest but there is no doubting the quality of McShee's vocal as the second half of the song is carried by her famously ethereal wail. This begins a sublime run of material through to the interval. Mirage is the next song with the band's jazz influences coming to the fore before The Hunting Song takes things to another level again with Jacqui's exquisite voice providing the gel to bring together the disparate sounds.
Mainstream it isn't - there are few gigs for example where the mere entrance of a sitar or a bango generates warm applause. The audience is worshiping at the alter of funky folk and is sympathetic to the odd strained note here and there. Part one ends with the haunting Cruel Sister and one can't help but be impressed with the overall shape of the show - this is a band, whilst trading on past successes, that retains a spirit and sound worthy of their legacy.
Sadly the second half of the show doesn't quite match the first. The band re-emerge to play a series of blues jams which, while displaying the diversity of their influences, struggle to hold the attention - especially when Jacqui is offstage. The double bass solos in particular lack variety, pared back to single notes and we are slowly battered into submission by soporiphic soloing. Terry Cox's drum work with its jazz shuffle is better but its only when McShee re-emerges and promises us more tales 'of doom and gloom' that things pick up again. The Wedding Dress Song (learnt we are told from Peggy Seeger) is a rare moment of joy as Anderson plays his bass with a bow. As things wrap up with Pentangling the audience shows its appreciation to the extent that the band return for a brief encore of Rain and Snow bathed in red and yellow light.
Few can doubt Pentangle's influence in the world of English roots music. At their heart is a commitment to authenticity and experimentation and in Jacqui McShee they have one of the great voices of any genre. The rest of the ensemble are no slouches either despite their age. They deserve the late acclaim they are receiving for their continued commitment to music of depth and beauty.