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Second Fiddle

John Renbourn & Archie Fisher
Saddle Soap Opry: Folk music legends John Renbourn and Archie Fisher follow the musical trail to Kuumbwa Wednesday night for a rowdy round-up of vocal dazzlement and guitar derring-do.

Renowned guitarist John Renbourn sings the praises of his co-star, vocalist Archie Fisher

By Bruce Robinson

TO AMERICAN audiences, acclaimed British folk guitarist John Renbourn is the draw, but in his eyes, the star of his current tour is the co-billed vocalist Archie Fisher. Little-known on this side of the Atlantic, Fisher was a member of the Fisher Family, traditional Scottish singers, and is revered as a sort of father figure to an entire generation of Celtic minstrels.

"As far back as I can remember, in the beginning of the early London folk scene in the early '60s, musicians would come down from Edinburgh--Bert Jansch and Robin Williamson and musicians like that--and they all mentioned Archie," Renbourn recalls in a telephone chat from his home in the south Scotland border country. "It seemed as if they all crossed paths with him and learned from him in the early days. His reputation is largely filtered through the fact that he's influenced a lot of other players who are much better known."

Renbourn himself fits that description. Perhaps best known for his membership more than 20 years ago in Pentangle, the ground-breaking virtuoso ensemble that melded ancient folk melodies with a free-ranging jazz sensibility, Renbourn is an accomplished composer and instrumentalist who regularly visits the States. In addition to occasional reunions with Jansch, the other Pentangle guitarist, Renbourn has collaborated with such disparate partners as jazzman Larry Coryell, gypsy violinist Stefan Grossman and Williamson, erstwhile founder of the Incredible String Band. Now he is looking forward to teaming up with Fisher.

"The main point of the tour is to play music with him," Renbourn says, "because I've been an admirer of his for a long time. For me, it's a real treat."

You wouldn't know it from his dexterous finger-picking and omnivorous absorption of influences, but Renbourn's first musical interest was skiffle, the same pre-rock British jug band style that the Beatles and most of their contemporaries first explored. "I was a teenager, strumming a guitar and trying to play the hits," he reminisces. Then it was off to art school for a few years, "and when I came out, two things were going on, the R&B boom," which we know as the British blues era, "and the traditional folk movement that was going on parallel to that."

Renbourn jokes that his choice of pursuing acoustic folk music was dictated by the fact that "I wasn't rich enough to buy an electric guitar."

Subsequently, he met Jansch, and the two began performing together, soon adding the rhythm section of Danny Thompson and Terry Cox. Those connections gelled into four-fifths of Pentangle, which added vocalist Jacqui McShee, signed a recording contract and hit the ground running.

"We left this little club and found ourselves on the road doing big, major tours. There was this drastic change overnight," recalls Renbourn, still seeming a bit dazed by the experience. "We toured an awful lot. It was a pretty intense time for creativity. We put out quite a lot, considering the short time the band was all together."

In the weeks before the U.S. tour, Renbourn says, he has been "reworking an old string quartet" and "trying to finish a record I've been making in Dublin with a lot of Irish musicians."

And composing. "The ideas are still haunting me as much as ever," he says cheerily. Through the use of a small studio in northern Scotland, he is now disgorging "a great backlog of musical ideas that are finally getting down on tape.

"It's changed my life, really."

John Renbourn and Archie Fisher play Kuumbwa (320 Cedar St., SC) on Wednesday, Feb. 19, at 8:15pm. Tickets cost $13 advance or $14 at the door. For more info, call 464-2128.

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From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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