Theatre Royal, York

Every time I come to York, it floods!’ So saying, John Martyn eased his distressingly increased, black-pyjama’d bulk into a chair and peered at his audience. But the only floods coming at him on a dreary November evening were floods of affection from an adoring audience in the (almost full) Theatre Royal. Having bought two tickets for prime seats in the stalls just two hours before curtain up, I was worried that the York gig of JM’s strangely underplayed English tour would not draw in the punters. I was glad to be proved wrong and glad, too, to see so many young people among all the old hands.

Equally reassuring was the sight of musical stalwarts Arran Ahmun, Alan Thompson and – looking particularly professorial with a full head of swept-back hair – Spencer Cozens. (I always feel better when I know that Spencer is keeping an eye on things, especially if it looks like JM has been on the sauce before the show). Tonight, unfortunately, seemed to be one of those nights. Apart from the comment about York and its proclivity for water – and an ironically shouted suggestion that a benign heckler should ‘speak English, man!’ – I was unable to make out anything else JM said all night.

Not that there was much banter. Pausing only to sip his red wine, JM quickly got down to business. I don’t know why the gig was advertised as part of the ‘On the Cobbles’ tour, because the only track from the album was ‘My Creator’ – and I first heard this in concert a couple of years before it appeared on CD. What we got – and this might not be the exact running order – was, amongst others, ‘Smiling Stranger’, ‘Glorious Fool’. ‘Looking On’, ‘I Don’t Want to Know’, ‘Carmine’, ‘Sunshine’s Better’ and ‘Cooltide’ (much tighter live, I think, than on the album). When the band went off stage for a short break, JM was handed his acoustic guitar and gave us ‘The Easy Blues’ followed, surprise, surprise, by ‘May You Never’.

The music was great, of course, as you would expect from consummate musicians who have played these songs together for so long. Now that we get so little guitar on the albums, live gigs are the only chance we have to hear John plug in and let rip (‘fire seared across marble’ as one reviewer memorably put it). And the voice?  Not so good, I’m afraid: lots of mumbling and slurring. If I didn’t know the lyrics by heart, I wouldn’t have had a clue what he was singing about. Even a favourite like ‘Rock, Salt and Nails’ lacked the familiar growl and venom.

However, that might just be me. The audience seemed to love it all and could not have been kinder. They applauded every song with rapture and laughed uproariously at jokes and banter they couldn’t possibly have heard. Even the hecklers shouted comments like ‘Welcome to York!’ Despite the waves of love heading stageward, JM wanted out. He gave us ‘Never Let Me Go’ (irony again?) and then hobbled off (in some pain, I thought). The audience stamped and clapped for an encore – but the house lights went up and that was our lot. Still, at ninety minutes full time on stage, we couldn’t really complain.

Not a great night by JM standards, and not much to do with ‘On the Cobbles’ (or even ‘Glasgow Walker’); but another precious opportunity for his many fans to let him know how much he means to them.

Nick McGuinn