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Bert Jansch playing his guitar against a blue background with a tag that says "For Bert Jansch". This artwork is for the album, 80 Plays for Bert.

Bert Jansch Foundation, 80 Plays for Bert, Volume 1 – a review

80 Plays for Bert explores the legacy of the legendary fingerpicker - a fitting tribute by emerging artists, curated by Sam Grassie.

The cover art for 80 Plays for Bert, featuring Bert Jansch sat in a room painted using mixed media art.
Release Date
20 December 2023
80 Plays for Bert, Volume 1
In 2018, The Bert Jansch Foundation launched a global project, sending five special guitars to musicians influenced by the great man's music. This Bandcamp compilation, curated by Sam Grassie, features artists paying tribute to Jansch's enduring influence, showcasing a mix of inspired originals and Jansch classics, illustrating the profound impact of his legacy on the current British folk scene's musicians.

For over 10 years the Bert Jansch Foundation has been in place to help young acoustic musicians. It has been their aim to help with educational and early career opportunities, to run workshops and award grants. In 2018 (which would have been his 75th year) the Foundation sent five special guitars off around the world in order to salute the man himself. The aim was to encourage a wide range of musicians to express their love for a singular talent, a remarkable guitarist. The hope was that they would play songs inspired by him, songs that he loved, or songs that he had recorded.

As part of the project, this lovely digital-only compilation has just been released, via Bandcamp. Compiled by Sam Grassie, it is an intimate portrait of just what Bert Jansch means to so many. Grassie, himself, features on two tracks. Tradfolk have already identified this fine fingerstyle guitarist and songwriter as a name to watch in 2024 and it’s not hard to see why. A familiar face to anyone who has been to The Moth Club, or to see Broadside Hacks, he has a debut EP out in January, and his version of ‘It Don’t Bother Me’ (originally taken from the 1965 album of the same name) simply resonates with a deep love of the folk revival. It seems entirely beamed in from a mid-60s Soho basement; the guitar playing is gorgeous and Grassie’s voice has a cigarette-coloured patina that’s easy to love. With his Janschly-named band Avocet, ‘Blackwaterside’ [Roud 312] is darkly fluid, swooping around the bends of a river. It is, at once, languid, then rushing and urgent. Iona Zajac’s vocals create infinite depths and dark-green shadows. Maybe there’s a hint of Anne Briggs, standing under a weeping willow, with a wry smile.

Sam Grassie, playing one of the Bert Jansch Foundation guitars

Charlie Mckeon’s ‘Sally Free and Easy’ comes complete with background hiss and splashy, brushed drums. He is languorous, sleepy and honey-drunk. A delightfully woozy take on the Pentangle classic, it has the feel of a song that has been stumbled upon and recorded where it stood. It is open-hearted and honest and, along with so many other songs here, captures the love that all of these artists feel for Jansch.

Redina’s ‘The Blacksmith’ [Roud 816] has a similar feel – an almost Lomaxian plucking of magic from the air. A typically intricate acoustic guitar is front and centre while a voice, capable of thrilling acrobatics, settles into a bee-hum drone. You can almost feel the dust motes that the thrum throws up. Avice Caro’s ‘Willie of Winsbury’ [Roud 64] also seems to have been captured in a cobwebb-y room. There’s a wistful, fairytale air – something plaintive and beautiful trapped behind an ancient wooden door.

The Bert Jansch version of Jackson C Frank’s seminal ‘Blues Run the Game’ is almost as revered as the original. Glaswegian Robin Adams has the unenviable task of providing a version here. His is delicate and warm, softened by a Scottish burr. It’s not as belligerent as Frank’s version. Instead, it stretches out, rolling towards its conclusion.

As much as the songs pay homage to the great man, it is the instrumentals through which Jansch’s influence can be glimpsed most obviously. Guitar gods from Jimmy Page to Johnny Marr have acknowledged their debt and, here, the payment of that debt continues. Dariush Kanani’s version of ‘The Wheel’ is hypnotic and intricate, high notes pinging like wires, while you can almost hear the reverence on Johnson Hogg’s ‘Chambertin’. It starts with bird song and a huge intake of breath, and then Hogg casually unwinds the tune with such skill, such love.

Ben Walker is, rightly, regarded as one of folk’s finest guitarists and his take on ‘Bert’s Blues’ is wonderful. It is so easy to become lost in the spirals, caught in the eddies. Six-string patterns whirlpool around, gentle, textured, utterly transfixing. When this project was conceived it was, surely, this that the Bert Jansch Foundation had in mind – something respectful yet thrilling.

Founder member of Broadside Hacks, Campbell Baum, contributes his version of ‘Game of Cards’ and it is yet another highlight. Originally a song from 1750, it is thought to be a euphemism for sex but Baum insists that his is more innocent. Oliver Hamilton’s violin and Naima Bock’s vocal pull against the guitar, setting a gentle tussle across green baize. Bock, in particular, is astonishing, playfully kicking up her heels as the cards are tossed into the air.

If Bock is one stand-out female voice on 80 for Bert, then Sarah McQuaid is another. ‘When A Man’s in Love’ [Roud 990] was recorded live in St Buryan Church, Cornwall, and is a wonderfully evocative piece of storytelling, McQuaid reaching into the darkness to draw out an exquisite piece of shadowy scene setting. For (almost) the first time a voice distracts from the incredible guitar playing that surrounds it.

If the aim for the Bert Jansch Foundation is to draw attention to brilliant acoustic musicians, then there is no doubt that 80 Plays for Bert does just that. It’s well worth getting over to Bandcamp and finding it.

80 Plays for Bert, Vol 1 was released on December 20th. It can be downloaded via Bandcamp.