Living in the Shadows is an apt title for this four-disc box set from Earth Recordings. Its subject, guitarist Bert Jansch, is a certified legend, world-renowned for his groundbreaking early solo records, his membership in Pentangle, and his innovative playing style that stretched the boundaries of various Celtic and European folk musics to embrace improvisational jazz, rock, and Middle Eastern modalism and influenced generations of players. This set includes three largely forgotten and utterly worthwhile studio albums: 1990's The Ornament Tree, 1995's When the Circus Comes to Town, and 1998's Toy Balloon. A fourth disc contains unreleased material consisting of alternate takes, demos, and new songs, some of them cut in Jansch's home studio. There are also two versions of a duo with guitarist John Renbourn tacked on at the end.
Disc one's The Ornament Tree contains entirely traditional material. His playing and uncanny arranging skills are at full strength after a fairly long period away. His use of whistles, bodhrans, fiddles, and more reflects his defiance toward modern cultural fusion. Still, if one listens closely to the title track, "Three Dreamers," "Lady Fair," "Tramps and Hawkers," "The Mountain Streams," and even "The Rocky Road to Dublin" (which had been played to death by the Pogues by then), it's obvious that elements of blues and jazz remained inseparable parts of his DNA. When the Circus Comes to Town showcases a band on much of it. Its more adventurous feel doesn't always serve Jansch to advantage. That said, most of this is prime. "Back Home" weds Anglo-Celtic traditionalism, the Cisco Houston-esque boxcar rambling tradition, and American West Coast singer/songwriter tropes. The bluesy saxophones on "Summer Heat" and the silvery fingerstyle picking on "Just a Dream" are also winners, but the prize is "The Lady Doctor from Ashington," dedicated to the physician who helped cure his alcoholism. An acoustic instrumental, it puts all of Jansch's gifts on display.
Toy Balloon seems to straddle the bridge between the previous two albums. "Sweet Talking Lady" (with a funky horn section) is a full-band electric slide guitar blues-rocker, while the utterly revisioned "She Moves Through the Fair" is rife with so much haunting mystery, it sounds not like a well-worn nugget, but a bold new tune. The final disc of alternates, demos, and newly discovered songs is 100 percent rough magic and comes from a meticulous recent cataloging of the guitarist's material. It flows along without an idle or substandard moment. Fans will devour it. It reveals in spades the workingman's side of Jansch's genius. Just check "Merry Priest," "Little Max," and the two takes of the untitled instrumentals with Renbourn to find stellar examples of what's on offer. The whole box is beautifully packaged in hardbound book style and includes an excellent sleeve essay by Jansch's biographer Colin Harper (Dazzling Stranger). For anyone interested in Jansch, Living in the Shadows is simply a must-have.