Another live John Martyn album gets dragged up from the vaults, but is it worth having ?
Peter Marsh 2002-11-20
There's been a lot of live John Martyn hitting the racks of late, some of it of doubtful origins and a lot of it pretty undistinguished; certainly none of it lives up to the classic Live at Leeds, arguably his most exploratory, spacey record. Until now...
Though the recording quality is a little suspect (the sleeve boasts that this is a 'restored live recording') Martyn's combination of fluid guitar and gruff, honeyed vocals shine brightly on this 2CD set, spinning songs soaked with toughness and vulnerability. Though committed Martynophiles will know that his gigs can be hit or miss affairs, they need have no worries here; John is on good form, having a go at Margaret Thatcher, begging for spliffs and treating his bewildered audience to a dissertation on the beauty of Italian insults.
The real treats are "Outside In", "One World" and "Big Muff", where John snakes his acoustic guitar through delays, wah wah and fuzzboxes to produce lush,billowing soundscapes. Martyn must be one of the most underrated and individual guitar stylists this country has produced; "Outside In" is a stoned, immaculate 15 or so minutes of improvised cosmic folk wizardry. If there was more individual, passionate music being made by an Englishman (or Scotsman) in the 70's I've yet to hear it.
The poignant "Beverley" and the furious "Seven Black Roses" showcase Martyn's acoustic virtuosity (despite his ironic protestations that 'this isn't a serious guitar solo'). Elsewhere, songs like "Bless the Weather" and "Couldn't Love You More" appear like old friends though Martyn improvises around their frameworks, never regarding his songs as written in stone but changing lyrics and delivery on the fly. Possibly this is sometimes a result of short term memory loss caused by recreational substance abuse, but the effects are rarely less than glorious.
A couple of audience recordings round the album off, including a medley of "Stay", "Anna" and "Small Hours', which again despite the lo-fi rendering, is a meltingly lovely performance with a heart tugging guitar solo; maybe one of the finest Martyn moments that's been preserved on CD.
Not long after the performances here, John went all electric, surrounding himself with fretless basses, shiny synths, expensive studio sand Phil Collins. But Live in 1979 is a nice summing up of those years when he was cheerfully demolishing the boundaries between jazz, blues,folk and rock (as well as a few hotel rooms no doubt) while producing some of the most honest, moving music you're likely to hear. Bless 'im.