John Martyn – St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 21/11/08

pic from Flickr user 'StephenMcleod'

pic from Flickr user 'StephenMcleod'

2008 has been a good year for John Martyn.

In February he was given the Lifetime Achievement award at the 2008 Radio 2 Folk awards. Another accolade followed in June, when he scooped the Les Paul Award for contribution to guitar music on the Mojo Honours List. In September, John celebrated his 60th birthday – a milestone which it seemed unlikely he would reach at several points in his turbulent life.

His request for life to Go Easy on him on his 1971 album Bless The Weather was clearly denied: in 1996, he suffered a burst pancreas; in 2002, he was forced to wear a neck brace after a late-night collision with a cow; in 2003, he had his right leg amputated below the knee as a result of a burst cyst and earlier this year, he endured two weeks in hospital with pneumonia. Music critics across the land must have been tasked to write his obituary many times, only for John to return from the edge with defiance again and again.

Rather than relaxing and soaking up the praise with which he has been lauded these past few months, John is back on the road demonstrating why he rightfully earned it. Following on from his two-part Solid Air tour in 2007, in which he played his magnum opus in its entirety, John is currently touring his 1980 record Grace and Danger. If Solid Air is the album most people will remember him for, Grace and Danger is the album where the real John Martyn is most nakedly on display. He says the record was “probably the most specific piece of autobiography I’ve written.” This is especially significant given that he has claimed: “[s]ome people keep diaries, I make records.”

Powerful emotions are evident on all nine tracks on Grace and Danger, which was made during John’s divorce from his first wife Beverley. He was not kidding when he said: “Grace and Danger was very cathartic, and really hurt, I was really in love with that woman.” The album is as diverse as it is affecting, as John seems to employ a different genre of music for each feeling he wishes to convey. This is particularly marked from the third track to the fifth, where the organised jazz chaos of Looking On moves into the slow-paced and silky-smooth Sweet Little Mystery, via the reggae-stomp of Johnny Too Bad.

It was a pleasure to see him strum his way through Grace and Danger on Friday night in St David’s Hall in Cardiff. It never feels like you are about to see a musical performance when you first join the crowd at a John Martyn gig, and this show was no different. The atmosphere was more like a football match or an evangelical religious gathering, and this intensified when John was wheeled on stage looking like a bearded Buddha to greet his cheering crowd.

The set had three distinct phases, each shorter than the one before. First he played through Grace and Danger in album order, the sound of which was enhanced by the saxophone of Martin Winnings. After this John swapped his electric guitar for an acoustic and announced he was going to play some tunes from the “hippy days”. This turned about to be almost half of Solid Air, including an outstanding extended take of May You Never. He then put down his instrument and crooned his way through the last two songs – Rock Salt and Nails and Never Let Me Go.

Many of the songs were extensively reinterpreted when compared to the original albums versions, and John’s delivery is also very different to how it used to be. The voice of any singer is bound to transform over the course of a long career – take Joni Mitchell and her clear change from high to low. John’s vocals have not really altered in pitch, but they have shed much of their early anger and urgency. Compare his version of Johnny Too Bad from 1981 to the same track in 2004, and you will hear how he now purrs like a contented walrus. This is no bad thing.

John is apparently working hard on a new album but after seeing him perform the big question is, will he take another one of his classic records on tour next year? I live in hope that he does and chooses One World, just to get a chance to see the best eight minutes of music ever made live.

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~ by seanbradbury on November 23, 2008.

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