New Victoria Theatre, London

New Victoria Theatre, London

JOHN MARTYN is one of two lavishly gifted British guitarists to have emerged from the folk circuit to embrace  a wider rock audience.  He has done so with a thorough blend of closely observed, mellow love songs and a unique expressive guitar technique on both the acoustic and solid electric guitar, enhanced by a range of effects over which he retains complete mastery.

Although these effects are part of the armoury of The Modern Rock Guitar Hero, Martyn uses them with such a subtle touch and taste that he’s able to explore, by stages, their melodic, percussive, dramatic and indeed symphonic properties.  It’s a rare talent.

He was clearly a nervous man when he played his biggest London concert so far at the New Victoria theatre last week, a state probably increased by the fact he hasn’t been using any supporting musicians on this current  tour (last year he was accompanied by bassist Danny Thompson , drummer John Stevens and the late Paul Kossoff on guitar).  That lack also contributes to the overall sense of unfulfilled promise.

Martyn is an enigmatic performer.  His music is so intense and involving that it is a compulsion with him to puncture the atmosphere immediately before and after a song with some self-deflatory remark.  This does, however, help him to build a matey rapport with his audience, and none more so than with the cove who yelled out incessantly for “Over The Hill” until, utterly exasperated, he bellowed “OVER THE F***IN HILL,” much to Martyn’s amusement.

Martyn’s slurred, mumbling singing isn’t the best servant of his lyrics, but in the general mesh of his music  its sense of passion barely able to voice itself is right.  He can be gently poignant too.  Witness his relaxed reading of “Spencer The Rover” or “One Day Without You.”

But it’s his guitar work which intrigues.  He’s clearly absorbed all manner of influences from jazz, yet very few from the jazz guitar, and his great ability is to build crescendos  from varying musical angles – hard edged percussiveness, well rounded melodicism and so on.  It necessitated, as has been noted, the use of echo, tape delay, backing tapes, wah-wah, fuzz, two guitars, a lot of tuning up, the inspiration of a couple of cans of beer, the relaxation afforded by several drags on a roll-your-own and a release of tension and expression of gratitude/triumph in an oft-wave clenched fist.  It was a performance which had great moments, but in total, fell short of his ultimate capability.

The other British guitarist who ranks alongside Martyn in achievement, although hardly comparable in actual style, is Richard Thompson.  One hoped we may also hear from him soon.

Geoff Brown
Melody Maker
5 March 1977

New Victoria Theatre, London
20 February 1977