Live At Leeds

John Martyn; Live At Leeds

This was put out privately by mail order in 1976 (Island Records having declined the pleasure) in what is described as ‘a strictly limited edition’ a mere 10,000 if I remember rightly. We find the artiste with his acoustic guitar routed and rerouted through echo units and foot pedals, constructing densely woven meshes of sound and careering rhythmic impetus; his voice buzzing and slurring toward the abstract. Solo, there were times when this lot apparently took on a life and logic of its own, so it’s to the credit of Danny Thompson (bass) and John Stevens (drums) that they integrate so well, whether on the headlong rush of Skip James’ I’d Rather Be The Devil or the more impressionistic, amorphous Outside In. That one evolves through 18 minutes plus and in places the shifting textures recall snatches of pipe laments, which is about as near as Martyn comes here to any reflection of his Scots origins.

Solid Air, although shorn of the atmospheric sax and vibes of the studio cut, remains perfectly viable and indeed boasts a higher proportion of intelligible lyrics than the original. Bless The Weather, by contrast, I find rather aimless and repetitive, falling into all the pitfalls inherent in Martyn’s style which the other tracks avoid for the most part.

This LP is a resurrected rarity containing some unique music, very respectably recorded for a live set of its age. The band’s apparently recent discovery of rude words is as tiresome as their musical capacities and rapport are impressive (Stevens’ stint in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble probably helped). What has it got to do with roots music? One 12-bar aside, not that much: Martyn shook the ‘folk singer’ tag early on, and here his vocal influences owe more to the sax-playing of perhaps a Gerry Mulligan or Stan Getz than to any ethnic source. Still, this magazine has a soft spot for guitarists who once recorded for Island and divorced singing partners amidst some public acrimony, doesn’t it?

Nick Beale
Folk Roots No.50
1 August 1987