In a Fringe where one man shows are ten a penny, there’s a reason why the queue for John Renbourn snakes all the way up the street and round the corner from the St. Brides Hall. A singer and guitarist whose interests stretch from folk and jazz to medieval and classical, the musical content of his show is deeper and more intricate than that of his contemporaries and his own personal musicality is second to none. Renbourn’s set doesn’t seem to be constructed out of anything other than instinct and whim. He decides what to play song by song, relying on his extraordinary knowledge of melody and his ability to improvise and interpret to build a show on the spot. From the outset, it is clear that Renbourn’s goal is to entertain and share. He is a very generous and earnest performer.
At the start of the show he confessed to being a little rusty, having not performed much recently. Although there were definitely a few glimpses of this with odd instances of choppy chording and some timing issues (whilst his voice caught up with his guitar, or vice-versa), it didn’t take away from my personal enjoyment of the show. Renbourn doesn’t build himself up as a technical virtuoso – although his playing is still excellent – but as a true music lover and his tangible passion more than makes up for his few slips. Renbourn’s musicality shines through particularly well in his guitar solos which showcase his fantastic affinity with his instrument. When concentrating solely on his playing I felt he was a little more daring with his musical choices and stylistic influences; there were some gorgeous hanging suspensions, exciting chromatic voice leadings (his voicing is superb in general throughout the night) and shimmering tremolo textures. His singing voice is not as strong in itself, but his aim when singing is not to produce a fantastic technical sound, rather to perform with character and emotional honesty. Renbourn’s is the voice of every man; he sings from personal experience but makes it open and accessible rather than introverted or over-reflective. The result is often deeply moving.
John Renbourn has an exceptional natural connection with his audience. Despite the size of the venue he manages to create a very close, personal atmosphere. His between-song banter is easy and casual (although this means the sound system sometimes fails to pick it up), the humour is gentle and never strays into sarcasm or irony. There are some shows at the fringe that are best enjoyed with friends, but Renbourn’s ability to maintain a warm and intimate atmosphere means that, even if you’re on your own, there is a real sense of togetherness and fellowship. The overriding sense that rather than seeing a 75 minute show, you’re simply spending 75 minutes in the company of Renbourn and your fellow attendees – it’s a lovely way for a show to be.