Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

In the 1970s, John Martyn was the master of the romantic sublime. Schooled in the 1960s folk boom, this Glaswegian went electric, made the Echoplex tape-delay device his own, and found his musical soulmate in fellow closet jazznik double-bassist Danny Thompson. Tender intimacy and booming spaciousness all of a piece, Martyn’s classic albums Bless The Weather, Solid Air and One World conjured acoustic-electric moodscapes where your heart and time itself stood still.

Yet on his 1980 ‘divorce album’ Grace and Danger, he played with a suave rock band, and has relied ever since on plugged-in sidemen to do his heavy lifting. Today keyboardist Spencer Cozens marshals the kind of slick, jazz cafe outfit you’d expect to have cosseted the likes of Sadé 20 years ago rather than the more rough-hewn yet vulnerable Martyn. Mysteriously, that is the way he wants it.

Now 57, the man himself has been stabbed, shot, impaled, burst his pancreas and had his right leg amputated at the knee in 2003. Like Rembrandt, ageing over the years from Arcadian shepherd boy to barnacled monument, he is a considerable, mostly sedentary presence, cradling his Gibson Les Paul like a toy, radiating bonhomie in a lubricated Big Yin growl that never fails to raise a ripple, even if imperfectly understood. A full house hangs on every word.

The song John Wayne calls for the power of his band, even if the corners are tastefully smoothed off, and they punch home what should be a lullaby, May You Never. Also from the 1973 album Solid Air, Don’t Want To Know and the title track transcend the intrusive arrangements, Martyn’s pleading chestiness evoking the autumnal, lived-in timbres of late Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Band-wise, less would be more, but this living legend is ageing with grace.

At Colston Hall, Bristol, tonight. Then touring.

Mat Snow
The Guardian
12 May 2006

10 May 2006
Shepherd’sBush Empire