Don’t Look Back, The Barbican, London

Thirty three years have elapsed since the Old Grey Whistle Test performance that conferred a measure of stardom on John Martyn. However, the image of the lithe, curly-haired troubadour singing May You Never seems lodged in the communal memory bank — three minutes of television that prompted thousands of aspiring guitarists to experiment with echo boxes and unbuttoned waistcoats.

The sold-out audience that turned out to see him for this one-off performance of his 1973 album Solid Air knew that, whatever else happened, they would get to hear Martyn’s most well-known song. “All together now,” he exclaimed in ironic acknowledgement.

The song remains the same; the singer less so. Confined to a wheelchair since the loss of his lower right leg, the increasingly saturnine singer-songwriter padded his glistening head with a towel and joked that a measure of sadism must have accounted for the healthy turnout. In fact, sadism didn’t come into it. Masochism, though — that was another matter. Someone really should have had a word with Martyn about a band who, at times, seemed to have been freshly freighted in from an ocean liner in the mid-1980s. As a result, dewy, somnambulant meditations such as Man in the Station and Glorious Fool found themselves crowded out by swaths of synthesizer noise and saxophone flourishes last seen fighting Paul Young’s sequined jacket for attention.

It was no coincidence that Over the Hill — played raw and joyously — on an acoustic guitar and mandolin ended to a gale of applause. Managing to stay in the same zone for the childlike bossa blues of Don’t Wanna Know, Martyn perched his guitar on his stomach and fixed upwards upon some indeterminate point. It was hard to tell whether the sound of his own playing had propelled him to a transcendant reverie or if he was distracting himself from physical discomfort.

What was once a prop, an implement with which to dazzle, seems to have taken on a new significance in Martyn’s immobile years. Playing Solid Air — the song he wrote to remember his contemporary Nick Drake — he cradled his instrument like a baby. The sinuous hook and pull of Martyn’s fretboard manner, together with his bedside burr, conspired to make the years fall away.

Peter Paphides
The Times
13 September 2006

11 September 2006
The Barbican, London