Lion Taming At The Roundhouse

As he was rolled onto the stage of the Roundhouse last night, to greet a crowd charged with anticipation for the last night of his tour under the banner of the ‘Don’t look back’ series promising a replay of the classic Solid Air album, John Martyn resembled nothing so much as a cantankerous, overweight, thread bare old circus lion. In the early songs he periodically appeared to lapse into a drowse, lolling back with his eyes shut and his hands lightly and mechanically stroking photo: Bob Cunningham the strings of his flamed Gibson.The rhythm section, like the old hand keepers they are, prowl around outside the ring with Arran Ahmun hardly ever looking at the ‘big man’ but laying down the heart beat of the show periodically glancing up at ring master Spencer Cozens to catch the slightest of nods to signal the close of a song. Bassist Alan Thompson’s rhythms move in a more complex way especially later in the show he switches to a beautiful looking and sounding white fretless bass.  Saxophonist Martin Winnings is the trainee lion tamer and the man closest to the somnolent beast, he drifts in rasping breathy filling phrases watching every move of his charge with intense concentration as if he fears that the giant will thrash out with a huge paw at any moment if he gets too close.

These days a Martyn gig can be a hand grenade of an event and you are never sure what you are going to get. In recent years his live form has been distinctly patchy and there has to be doubt about his appetite for the fixed format of this show, but it’s the last night of the tour and the audience is close, educated and friendly. A bunch of yellow roses thrown by a bejangled hand from the crowd seems to break the mood and Martyn cracks a bewildered smile as he struggles to pick them up from his wheel chair.

The keepers, ring master and trainer relax and the old lion becomes positively tranquil as he moves into the Solid Air section of the evening, even Winnings is looking confident allowing himself to look away from his charge as he plays. Jelly Roll Blues is a more relaxed version than guitar wringing version of old and May You Never is greeted by considerable audience participation. The band including Martyn are wreathed in smiles. Cozens, always the man to catch events in the past if things look like they are going of course, is incredibly relaxed, face contorted in his own musical concentration rather than focussing waiting to see if the pin will be pulled this evening.

As they work through a rasping Rock Salt and Nails Martyn briefly loses his way but even this is not enough to send the evening awry and there is a moment to hope for a rare encore before Martyn’s Aerophlot t-shirted minder wings him away to focus on new material and the year ahead. On this performance and on his day he can still go through the hoops and please the crowd.

Nic Wing