The Roundhouse, London
To London’s Roundhouse this evening to watch the venerable John Martyn, once the skipping imp of English folk music; now an old sweet giant, with growling voice and a look as benevolent as an ageing Orson Welles in touch with his inner child. Wheeled on (leg lost to a burst cyst some years back), mimicking a drowsy Falstaff by the inn fire the music begins around him as he leans back in his chair no more than tinkering with the guitar on his lap. Then mid-song he cuts in with a searing, swooping solo, looking at his hands with a half-amused smile as if to question whether it’s really himself that’s playing so bright and so fine. The voice is now a growl – half Van Morrison, half Alvin Youngblood Hart – over a jazz backing out of mid-career Joni Mitchell (‘Hissing of Summer Lawns’ meets ‘TB Sheets’ via ‘Fightin’ Hard’). The speaking voice is even odder than the sung – pure stream-of-consciousness Les Dawson.So were we at a rock concert or a dinner party? An odd question you might have thought, as the matter is self-evident. Not so, though, it would seem to one of the audience – a smart powder-blue jumper number with neat grey hair, clipped accent and clipped wife – who was profoundly garrulous when someone had the effrontery to light a cigarette (such a wanton criminal act!) loudly remonstrating with the culprit – “I say, don’t you know smoking is forbidden here?” Poor guy was stunned to be thus hectored, not least considering half the crowd had lit a spliff or three to enhance the mood. “Wow man, sorry. Wow,” was all he could muster in reply. Later Ol’ Powder-Blue was even more vehement with a young fellow whooping and hollering his enjoyment of the music – “I’m really not able to enjoy this with you shouting so much you know.” Tempting was it to turn to him with ready cash and reply “Look, here’s twenty quid, go buy the CD and piss off home.” Ol’ Powder-Blue having quelled and silenced the crowd around him to his entire satisfaction then began chatting to his wife just as your man was in the middle of ‘Go Down Easy.’ Prat! I had to turn to him and bellow in his ear for all to hear “Do you mind not talking whilst he’s playing!” That shut him up for the night and we all rocked on in peace and harmony.
The electric set comes first. It works well, but I’m wondering where will be the necessary lightness of touch for the inevitable and much longed for acoustic set. The spirit of the young imp is still there, but will the weight of the older flesh be able to let it fly as it must? Oh most certainty it can and did. If the album and the song ‘Solid Air’ moved you then, it would have done so again tonight. ‘Over The Hill’, ‘May You Never’, ‘Go Down Easy’ and of course ‘Solid Air’ itself. A certain nostalgic tear might even have been seen spotting the clerical cheek as one stood there wearing one’s favourite Nick Drake tee-shirt, enraptured by the song of the moment and memories of the years. Dear Nick, genius and quite a lost soul, and thank you John for still being here to sing of and for him.