The Best Of Live ’91

Try to pin down the quicksilver musical soul of John Martyn and he’ll just squeeze through your fingers. Few who caught up with London Conversation, his late 1960s recording bow for Island Records, he was the first white solo performer on what was then a reggae based label, could have foreseen his transition from folky singer songwriter to electric rock band leader.

Yet while Bob Dylan, an acknowledged influence, made the same change, he never showed the same fascination for sounds and textures as Martyn. The way the Scot applied slapback echo and other effects to the acoustic guitar in the 1970s has helped shape the approach of many who followed; a generation led by Brit-winning Beth Orton, owe him a debt, while chart toppers The Verve selected him as their special guest for a 1998 show, introducing him to a new audience.

Born in Glasgow in 1948, Martyn drank in the influence, via vinyl, of American blues greats like Robert Johnson and Nehemiah ‘Skip’ James, merging it with the adroit guitar playing style of folk guru Davey Graham and lacing the result with a smattering of the sounds of the land of his birth. His attitude towards music has always been commendably open: “I don’t care if it’s Portishead or Robert Johnson or Débussy, it either moves you or it doesn’t.”

He introduced jazz to his music on his second album The Tumbler by using flautist Harold McNair, while a venture to Woodstock (with singer wife Beverley) a couple of years later gave him the chance to work with The Band. He’d venture to Jamaica later in the 1970s to work with producer Lee Scratch Perry, the fruits being audible in 1977’s One World; the title track, Dealer and Big Muff remain mainstays of his act today.

This compilation combines a performance at London’s Shaw Theatre in 1990 with a Bristol show the following year, a three track encore coming from 1975’s legendary Live At Leeds album. This was originally distributed by John from his Hastings home, Island having declined it: 10,000 sales gave Martyn the last laugh. By that time, he’d established himself with a trilogy of studio creations, Bless The Weather, Solid Air and Inside Out, that had moved him ever further from the acoustic singer songwriter template; indeed, backing musicians Danny Thompson (bass) (whose Whatever Next, The Complete Sessions is available on Eagle Records EDM CD 105) and John Stevens (drums) were effectively a jazz rhythm section reacting to his instrumental improvisations and inspirational flurries.

By the early 1990s, when our album begins, he was leader of a five piece band, and though concerts often began with a solo spot, most of the music was necessarily more arranged. Keyboard player Spencer Cozens and fretless bassist Alan Thomson were stalwarts, Miles Bould (drums, London) giving way to John Henderson in Bristol where jazz saxman Andy Sheppard supplanted Dave Lewis. The London show was attended by Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour, while fellow rock superstar Eric Clapton covered May You Never on 1977’s Slowhand album. While the royalties were doubtless welcome, that by no means deterred its writer from inserting it towards the front of his own set.

John Martyn’s recording career had not long resumed at the time of these recordings, having split (for the second time) from Island Records when they again chose not to release an album. On this occasion the sticking point was The Apprentice, a piece of work in which Martyn believed passionately. He found a more appreciative home at Permanent Records and Deny This Love is the first of four tracks from that album, The River, Look At The Girl and the title track being the others featured here from the Shaw Theatre show.

By the time of the Bristol performance a year later, previously only available in a limited edition Official Bootleg, he’d released his second studio album of the decade; Cooltide is represented here by the title track. “I like doing as much new stuff as I can,” he says, “but there’s a demand for older material.” Inevitably, the audience members have their favourites, yet the reception accorded the likes of Easy Blues (from 1973’s Solid Air), Angeline (from 1986’s Piece by Piece, and the first commercially available CD single) and Sweet Little Mystery (from 1980’s Grace And Danger) suggests the approval is widespread.

Grace And Danger had been recorded with help from Phil Collins around the same time as Face Value while both men were undergoing divorces. Though Martyn didn’t pick up the platinum sales, his album has since been acclaimed a heartbroken classic, according with John’s view that “you do your best work when you’re most screwed up.” He’s also keen to avoid being pigeonholed. “I’m not interested in English folk music at all,” he protests. “People expect some Donovanesque performer sitting on a toadstool… I’m not folky, I’m funky.”

It’s now around a decade since the bulk of these performances and, once again, John Martyn’s career has entered new territory. The very first year of the new millennium saw him hit a Hollywood high when he contributed to the soundtrack of the Oscar winning movie The Talented Mr Ripley, at the request of director Anthony Minghella. It also transpired that actor Matt Damon was a fan. Not that hobnobbing with the stars would turn John’s head, just as rubbing shoulders with the likes of Messrs Gilmour, Clapton and Collins had failed to detract from his street cred.

The man is now resident north of the border in the Church With One Bell that titled his 1998 collection of cover versions. Hearing him tackle other people’s songs was unusual, given his unique slurred vocal delivery. So maybe it’s fitting we end with Over The Rainbow, a live recording of the Judy Garland classic from The Wizard Of Oz, previously pressed up exclusively for members of his fan club.

And that fan following is set to grow as more people turn on to John Martyn. If our compilation of live highlights inspires you to buy a concert ticket, be warned: he’s no longer an artist who hangs out with his fans. “I try to arrive two minutes before I start and leave two minutes after I’m done.” These days John lets the music do the talking… and this is eloquent testimony to his genius.

Michael Heatley