Various Artists Johnny Boy Would Love This… A Tribute to John Martyn Review

Released 2011.  

BBC Review

Whatever the style of the cover version, Martyn’s poetic truths shine through.

Sid Smith 2011

Vetiver’s Andy Cabic, just one of the 30 artists providing cover versions on this two-CD collection, probably says it best for most of those contributing and listening when he writes, in the liner notes: "I never met John Martyn, and only know him through his albums and songs... I can always count on his music... to lift the spirits and stir a great depth of feeling, just when I need it most."

What’s quickly obvious, from reading other testimonies in the booklet accompanying this tribute release, is the Damascene conversion one feels upon encountering Martyn’s work. And it’s easy to hear why. Yes, there’s the intimate guitar picking, and melodies that strike with ineffable wonder deep in the soul. Mostly, though, it’s all about that voice.

Smoky smooth, it drifted lazily across chords, tempting others to follow where he’d been. Yet it’s also filled with muttered, conspiratorial whispers with a dangerous edge. Sometimes an angry, troubled individual, Martyn’s songs were a peace offering to a world his addictions and temperament had rubbed up the wrong way.

Lisa Hannigan’s beautifully sparse reading of Couldn’t Love You More picks out the exhausted fragility in Martyn’s work. Similarly, there’s a plaintive vulnerability in Head and Heart by Vashti Bunyan and Beth Orton’s take on Go Down.

Martyn’s poetic truths shine through most veneers applied to them, no matter how incongruous or inappropriate some of these interpretations may seem. Paolo Nutini’s odd, cod-reggae channelling of Bob Marley singing One World evokes a leery loucheness that’s not without a quirky charm, while Snow Patrol’s lighters-aloft, sing-along-a-stadium reading of May You Never, though obvious, is bafflingly likable.

Full marks though to the sure-footed grooves of Run Honey Run, by Morcheeba with Bradley Burgess, and The Emperors of Wyoming’s impressive widescreen shooting of Bless the Weather as a twangy cowboy dirge. Perhaps the most intriguing angle is found on Skye Edwards’ Solid Air, here haunted by terse electronica and an uneasy, brooding menace.

Philip Larkin memorably once noted, "What will survive of us is love". Whilst that’s undoubtedly true, in Martyn’s case there are also these glorious songs to savour and celebrate.

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