London's Cherry Red label's Cherry Tree imprint has been on a tear releasing English folk music in the 21st century. They've issued a box of Pentangle albums, another of early recordings by Bert Jansch, and sets by Steeleye Span, among many more. This six-disc box of recordings made by guitarist John Renbourn is a logical, if somewhat oddly titled, entry in that series. While these recordings spotlight Renbourn apart from Pentangle, five were cut before he was in the band. The last disc in this package is Sir John Alot, released in 1968 as Pentangle neared the peak of their popularity.
Three albums here are not solo. Discs one and five give top billing to American-born folk, blues, and gospel singer Dorris Henderson, resident vocalist of the short-lived BBC television show Gadzooks! It’s All Happening. (The show's house band included future Pentangle members bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox.) Fans of Rhiannon Giddens might be surprised at just how much her voice and style are indebted to Henderson's. Renbourn, friends with all of the above, had met Henderson in 1964 at a club in Soho. He also performed on the show regularly. Another inclusion here is Bert & John, the famed debut collaboration between the game-changing Pentangle's two future guitarists. (They were roommates at the time.) In addition to Sir John A Lot are two solo Renbourn recordings from 1966: one self-titled and the second Another Monday.
All six records have been appended with select, beautifully articulate bonus tracks -- any of them could have easily made the final cut at the time. Virtually nothing included is from the "dead dogs" files. What is startling is how technically gifted Renbourn was at this early juncture. While the Bert & John disc reveals him as a far more conventional player than his chance-taking partner, Renbourn's finesse is what stands out. Accompanying Henderson on Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" -- from There You Go, disc one -- the song sparkles with unique runs taken from folk history, while traditional songs such as "Cotton-Eyed Joe" and "The Hangman" are startling for their sophisticated yet reverent updates of British Isles fingerstyle playing. Renbourn doesn't play on the entirety of Henderson's Watch the Stars (disc five), but when he does, such as on a rag-blues reading of "God Bless the Child," he puts the tune firmly between the Delta tradition and early jazz, informing the timbre of Henderson's vocal phrasing. Other highlights include a smoking take of "John Henry" from Renbourn's self-titled LP alongside his read of Jackson C. Frank's immortal "Blues Run the Game." The version of "Can't Keep from Crying" on Another Monday is one of several that features Jacqui McShee on vocals -- another is "Nobody's Fault But Mine" with Renbourn playing bottleneck slide. Throughout this collection, the remastered sound by Oli Hemingway is breathtaking. The extensive liner essay by compilation producer David Wells is revelatory, and he also included a massive number of rare photos in the booklet. This set is essential not only for fans of Renbourn's but of British folk during the '60s. The sound quality alone is worth the (re)purchase price, and the bonus tracks make what was already wonderful a treasure.