Celtic Connections: A Unique Tribute To John Martyn And Martyn Bennett

Celtic Connections: A unique tribute to John Martyn and Martyn Bennett

NOW a quarter of a century old and more popular than ever before, Celtic Connections puts the very best Scottish musicians on stage – and in workshops – alongside outstanding talent from around the world. An undeniable highlight of the cultural calendar, the festival also provides some priceless annual respite from the bleakness of a Scottish January.

The 2018 lineup is no different, promising more than 2000 artists involved in 300 events across 20 venues. As with every year there will be no shortage of magical moments and precious memories for the thousands of people lucky enough to be in the audiences. For me, though, the highlights of this year’s festival offer a very special opportunity: the chance to once again experience the work of two of my favourite musicians, John Martyn and Martyn Bennett.

Despite being born in England and Canada respectively, both men were brought up in Scotland and have come to be closely associated with how we think about modern Scottish music.

John Martyn was a mesmerising singer-songwriter and guitarist whose career spanned five decades via more than twenty studio albums. His incredible, near-inhuman voice – often more like a saxophone than traditional vocals – rolled inexorably through line after line of his songs, while the dazzling variety of styles and techniques at his fingertips allowed him to perform with extraordinary range.

In songs like Over the Hill or One for the Road his vocals kick and bounce joyously over folk-styled fingerpicking; when performing I’d Rather Be the Devil he shifts to a bluesy, guttural roar; in Hurt in Your Heart or Fine Lines he seems able to distil his emotions into their purest form via haunting, languorous melodies.

But no matter the style, the context, or the scope of his experimentation, one thing stayed the same: he always sounded like John Martyn.

Martyn Bennet was a piper, pianist, violin player and composer best known for creating ‘Celtic fusion’. He blended the sounds and styles of traditional music with the beats and technology of the 21st Century and in doing so created a magical representation of Scotland in musical form, reflecting – and celebrating – everything from isolated Highland glens to Central Station at rush hour, from the stories of our past to the people of the present.

The great achievement of his alchemy is in capturing so much of how this dreich and pleasant land looks and thinks, acts and reacts. In short, he created music which sounds the way contemporary Scotland feels and although he insisted that he wasn’t trying to “change the face of Scottish music” (“It’ll change on its own,” he said, “in ways I don’t even know how”) there is no doubting the enormous influence he continues to exert.

Both men had a huge impact on the musical world, but John Martyn and Martyn Bennett have also provided much of the soundtrack to my adult life. Some of my strongest memories – good and bad – are bound up with the beautiful music they created.

Many years ago, when my girlfriend and I nearly split up during a holiday in Helmsdale, I sat by the water – drunk and getting drunker – late into the night. As the colour drained away from the sky over the north sea, I listened to John Martyn’s Small Hours – an introspective, echoplexed masterpiece played to the rhythm of an audible heartbeat – on repeat through my headphones. I don’t know how many times the song played, but I remember that it made me feel a little bit less alone.

Several summers later, when that same girlfriend and I stood in the middle of Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket, surrounded by family and friends on our wedding day, it was Couldn’t Love You More – performed by two of our closest friends – that played for our first dance.

As for Martyn Bennett, listening to one of his albums might bring back memories of watching the sunset over the Paps of Jura from the garden of a holiday house near Tayinloan, or riding my motorcycle through Ardnamurchan in the middle of an almighty thunderstorm. One song in particular – Why – reminds me of sitting on a black-sand beach in La Gomera, watching the sun sink into the Atlantic, and wishing my wife and son were sitting next to me.

Sadly, neither of these musical geniuses are still with us. Martyn Bennett died on the 30th of January 2005 – the night before his final work, Mackay’s Memoirs, was recorded by students of the City of Edinburgh Music School – when he finally lost his battle with Hodgkins Disease. He was just 33 years old. Almost exactly four years later, on the 29th of January 2009, John Martyn died in hospital in Ireland. Years of seemingly self-destructive drinking and drug use had taken a heavy toll, a fact that the man himself acknowleged in a 2004 BBC documentary: “I chose the vehicle and I chose the road. Ain’t nobody else’s fault but mine.”

Since then we have had only their music and the memories that come with them – but now, thanks to the amazing dedication of two groups of musicians, and the magic of Celtic Connections, something extraordinary is about to happen.

On Tuesday night, John Martyn’s most famous album, Solid Air, will be performed from ‘start to end’ by a band featuring some of Scotland’s top gigging musicians. They have previously completed similar performances of legendary albums such as Rumours by Fleetwood Mac and Daft Punk’s Discovery.

Joe Rattray – the bass player and one of the organisers of the whole enterprise – says that the motivation behind taking on Solid Air was simple: “It’s an album that I just really love. It’s a strange album – quite free. And it’s one you can come back to over the years and always find something new as you peel away the layers.”

Originally slated for the small venue Hug and Pint, the gig was soon moved a mile along Great Western Road to the Oran Mor in an attempt to accommodate the surprise demand. When it sold out again, a 6pm matinee show was arranged.

Though he agreed that the challenge of doing justice to such a seminal work is a little intimidating – not least because, as the bassist, he is charged with filling the sizeable shoes of the great Danny Thompson – Rattray added: “It’s been an amazing experience. We love getting really deep into an album because you start to understand it on another level when you find new things. And the whole project comes from the love of the albums.”

A few nights after Solid Air is revived, one of the most anticipated events of this year’s festival takes place when the GRIT orchestra reforms to take over the Hydro. Back in 2015, violinist and composer Greg Lawson brought together dozens of musicians from Scotland and beyond (as well as the actor David Hayman) for a spectacular live version of Martyn Bennett’s final album, Grit, in Glasgow’s Royal Concern Hall. That stunning performance not only opened the festival, it also marked ten years since Bennett’s death.

Three years on, the GRIT orchestra will come together once more for a live performance of Bennett’s second album, Bothy Culture. Billed as a “music-vision-dance-bike spectacular”, Bothy Culture & Beyond… will feature a number of special guests including Danny MacAskill, the Scottish cyclist whose hit video The Ridge – which has been viewed more than 55m times on YouTube – brought Martyn Bennett’s music to a whole new audience.

When asked why he chose to perform that particular album, Lawson told me: “Grit celebrated the vocal traditions in Scottish music whereas Bothy Culture is about the melodic and dance traditions.

“It’s about saying ‘let’s hold hands and go dancing and have a fantastic time.’ Being glad to be alive is a thing to celebrate and that’s what Bothy Culture means to me.”

What is also abundantly clear is that Lawson sees this as just the beginning of a larger journey. The GRIT orchestra exists not just to celebrate culture but also to play a part in building it.

Lawson talks passionately about the breaking down of musical barriers and hierarchies in a way that makes it all feel very much like a continuation of Martyn Bennett’s own work: “An orchestra has become something that represents an institution and an industry. This orchestra represents people. It’s about musicians being allowed to be musicians. Being allowed to play their hearts out.” It is a project of which Bennett – and, I suspect, John Martyn – would surely have approved.

And so, at two completely different venues, and in two entirely different ways, John Martyn and Martyn Bennett will each be brought back to life through celebrations of their ground-breaking musical achievements. It’s an incredible gift for fans like me, as well as a unique opportunity to bring their extraordinary work to new audiences.

Most importantly, it is also the best possible tribute to two true giants of modern Scottish culture.

And maybe, just maybe, it can be the start of something new, and wonderful, and Scottish.

Garry Scott
The Herald
17 January 2018