On The Cobbles

In the 1970s, John Martyn recorded a string of classic records that fused folk, jazz and rock with a healthy disregard for convention. Songs that started out as ballads ended up in passionate, freeform improvisations or hazy, cosmic menderings that owed as much to Pharoah Sanders as they did to Davy Graham. That sweet, tender growl of a voice slurred its way through songs about love, friendship and other concerns with disarming honesty, while his tough but lyrical guitar playing marked him as one of the country’s most individual players. Since then, his records have been sometimes patchy, indifferent affairs, but he’s retained a devoted, loyal fanbase. Dodgy labels ransacking his back catalogue haven’t helped his reputation or probably his financial situation of late, but four years ago things took an upturn with the release of Glasgow Walker, an atmospheric, bluesy collection that suggested there was life in the old dog yet. Then tragedy struck; in 2003 Martyn contracted an infection that resulted in the amputation of part of his leg.

But as fans of the man know, he’s not the kind to give in easily. It would be trite to say that such adversity has helped his creativity (after all, a difficult and painful divorce inspired the sublime Grace and Danger), but On the Cobbles is the strongest, most consistent set he’s come up with in years.

While Martyn’s not one for trading on past glories, he seems to have tapped into the same inspirations that informed the freewheeling atmospherics of the early 70s. As ever, the songs are organic, loose, reliant on texture and the casual warmth of the vocal delivery, though more stripped down, intimate than of late. He revisits Solid Air’s “Go Down Easy” though you’d be hard pushed to recognise it, while the sweet “One for the Road” is a tale of newfound love that wouldn’t be out of place on Sunday’s Child. “My Creator” sees our John dealing with spirituality in a way that Pharoah or Gary Bartz would be proud of. You can’t help but love him for stuff like this.

As well as a cast of veteran Martyn collaborators including bassists Danny Thompson and John Giblin, there are guest appearances from Paul Weller and Mavis Staples. To my mind, Martyn’s a strong enough presence to carry things off without that kind of help (Staples’ contribution to Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” is superfluous at best) but their presence is testament to the high regard in which he’s held. To quote Paul Wheeler; so nice to see our John again. Bless him.

Peter Marsh
BBC website
1 May 2004