The Apprentice Tour (Video)

(Virgin Music Video, 79 mins)

John Martyn’s been further down the road to ruin than most of us care to travel, so it’s good to see him back at his best, getting good reviews for The Apprentice LP and taking abandon the road for a show that confirms his status as one of Britain’s most invigorating composer-musicians, even if he is wearing a loud blouse, Acker Bilk beard and clunky shades. Mind you, his mates don’t bother dressing for the occasion either.

Recalling Jimmy Page’s guest star stints With Roy Harper in the ’70s, David Gilmour (unkindly acknowledged as “some freak on stage”) steps from the shadows in the same suit and shirt he wore in the rain at Knebworth. With active restraint, Gilmour adds typically tasteful guitar frills to John Wayne, Look At That Girl, and the wonderful One World.

As early as 1970’s great Stormbringer! set, Martyn belied his Glaswegian folkie tag by recording in America with Paul Harris. Levon Helm and John Simon, even then hinting at the bravura experimentation that would soon follow on Inside Out and Solid Air. The opening acoustic number here. Easy Blues, is a reminder that his aggressive guitar style and distinctive smoky vocals are ideally suited to a felicity for bluesy-jazz work that seems more colonial than Celtic.

The liltingly maudlin May You Never is also performed solo, sliding into the Echoplex dynamics of Dealer as percussionist Miles BouId joins in the seductive polyrhythmic sound-making. The rest of the band – Alan Thomson (bass), Dave Lewis (saxes) and Spencer Cozens (keyboards), are in place by Dealer’s end and they all know what they’re doing. Sapphire sounds like it’s being played by an entire orchestra and the three songs from The Apprentice (Deny This Love, The River and the title track) are performed with exhilarating force and enormous confidence.

Both The River and The Apprentice carry strong echoes of Springsteen-style concerns, not so much in the imagery as in the narrative’s blue-collar perspective. Tucked away inside this tense triptych, Grace And Danger’s Sweet Little Mystery comes across as almost fey. Almost. Martyn’s manner between songs is still jokily brusque but gone is the drunken horseplay that characterised his old partnership with Danny Thompson, when their obscene onstage exchanges seemed totally at odds with the emotional depth of the music. Here, it’s strictly business and the audience at London’s Shaw Theatre are suitably impressed.*** *

Monty Smith
1 August 1990