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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
JOHN MARTYN, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, May 10th 2006
To be honest I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen John Martyn. I know I first saw him in the early 1970s at college (I say ‘know’, because ‘remember’ is not a word one would associate with Martyn concerts of that era), and last saw him at the Jazz Café in London about five years ago, in between I can’t quite recall (though I do know there was one wonderful night under the Edinburgh stars when he played at the Castle Esplanade). Over the years his gigs have been increasingly frustrating occasions - always leaving me with the sense that Martyn is someone who almost throws his considerable talents away in favour of ‘banter’ and buffoonery. Of course the legendary drinking (and the rest) must have something to do with this, but I can’t really imagine that he can ever be quite as drunk as he sometimes likes to appear, given that he always makes a pretty decent fist of playing his guitar. And what’s more surprising is that there always seem to be a fair number in the audience who’ve only come to see this nonsense - like the sort of tasteless voyeurs who take pleasure in watching Shane McGowan down a bottle of vodka and then stumble blindly around the stage (I saw it and left). You almost wonder if performers like these are victims of their audience rather than victims of themselves.
You may know that Martyn recently had his right leg amputated above the knee, and it’s been a long time since he lost his svelte youthful good looks (when we got home I had to dig out the Old Grey Whistle Test DVDs just to check how youthful and good looking he was back in the seventies). To be honest he looks a bit of a mess. He’s got a good band with him, keyboards, bass (outstanding), drums, clarinet and saxophone, which is just as well. His guitar is hidden for a lot of the night, and when he does break out it’s for the most part quite conventional stuff, rarely reaching the heights of which he was nice so capable.
And if you don’t know Martyn’s work then of course you have to listen to Solid Air to understand what I’m on about. But don’t get me wrong - I also thought the relatively recent Church with no Bell was pretty good too - so I’m not just living in a rosy and nostalgic past. I suppose this must be what they call ‘after dinner jazz’. Every song has a long introduction, and long middle, and a long ending, and it’s the band doing most of the work. I really felt that Martyn was struggling at times with his guitar, and seemed to have (understandable) difficulty with his pedals, the key to his wizardry. Of course he sang - but his increasingly slurred, drawling growly voice has long since become a grotesque self parody, no more evident than in the crooned version of ‘Never let me go’ that he ends the set with. And of course we get the ‘Cockney John’ and ‘Glasgow John’ stuff in between songs - with a recurring and tedious joke about a man who killed his mother. To be frank it’s almost impossible to decipher his words and affected or not, he sounds like the sort of drunk that you hope never gets into your carriage on a train.
It’s a disheartening affair, and I can’t help thinking that it’s a genius that’s simply wasted away over the years. The audience seemed to love it, ‘though I’m not sure if they’re applauding the John they’ve just seen or the John they remember. But it’s hard to turn your back on someone whose work can still give so much pleasure and inspiration. So I guess that’s partly why we’ll be seeing him again (under the stars somewhere in Oxfordshire) later in the summer. Let’s hope it’s better, much better. - Nick Morgan (photohraphs by Kate)

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