We were on holiday in Cornwall and wandering around the back streets of Penzance when we saw the poster outside the Acorn Arts Centre, announcing an appearance by folk guitarist and singer John Renbourn in just a few days time. This was August of 2013. Now I hadn’t seen Renbourn live since the heady days when he was an integral part of Pentangle and, one or two pieces side, such as his perfectly understated version of “Lord Franklin”, I had listened to little of his music in a good while. Besides which, when I’d gone to see his former sparring partner, Bert Jansch, at the Acorn, just a few years before, I’d been sadly disappointed. But we talked it over with a pair of good friends who are more into the British folk scene than ourselves, and decided to give it a go.
The hall, set out with tables and chairs, was more or less full when we arrived – surely a good sign – and when Renbourn was introduced the applause was warm and heartfelt. The first sight of him, though, as he made his way, bulkily, almost warily, to the centre of the stage, as if uncertain of his balance, did not augur well. But then he sat down and proceeded to play. Little if any of the dexterity that had always been a hallmark of his playing seemed to have gone – a lengthy improvisation around Randy Weston’s “Little Niles” was as breathtaking as watching a man expertly walk a high wire – and the voice – that almost ghostly whisper – has lost little of its immediacy; and as the evening went on, you could sense him warming to the audience’s very real appreciation of his music, his very presence.
It was, simply, one of the best, most richly enjoyable events of its kind I’ve been privileged to attend, and, at its end, we were all staggered to hear that, rather than spending the night there in Penzance, Renbourn was going to drive himself all the way from almost the furthest point in the south-west, to where he lived on the Scottish borders. It beggared belief. But, seemingly, that’s what he did. All the time. Drive himself to gigs and back in his little green van.
Just a few days ago, March 2015, due at a gig in Glasgow, the little green van failed to arrive. Friends found Renbourn dead at his home, having suffered a heart attack.
There’s an excellent piece by Pete Paphides http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/mar/27/john-renbourn-ceaseless-explorer-of-song-pentangle-folk-appreciation