The Sweet and the Sour

Adam Sweeting
The Guardian
Adam Sweeting sees two seasoned performers back in action in London
The sweet and the sour

TWO enduring Celts played in London this week, both Sixties veterans who've survived upheavals of taste and style by sticking doggedly to their own version of events. Van Morrison, withdrawn and uncommunicative, filled the Hammersmith Odeon for a couple of nights,1 while John Martyn, nonchalantly stoned Glaswegian ex-folk singer, came to the Town & Country Club with his six-piece band to record a live LP.2

Both artists draw loyal, knowledgeable crowds, and people still shout 'Van the Man' at Morrison as the squat little Ulsterman barks ill-temperedly into his microphone. In Martyn's case, there are signs that new songs like Lonely Love are gradually winning him some new fans, perhaps even younger ones. The process is slow, because Martyn has on occasion found himself cursed by his 'old folkie' reputation.

"There is a following I have who don't fully approve of John Martyn and his electric guitar, but what we need is a chart single," he says candidly. "I think that would be very good for me, I think I could then afford to relax a little."

If Van Morrison harbours such schemes, he keeps them to himself. The contrast between Van's stage performances and his mellow, hazy recordings, like his recent No Guru, No Method, No Teacher album, is stark. He looks ill at ease and impatient, rocking restlessly from foot to foot, sticking out an arm to jerk his band into a brisk, curtailed reading of yet another song.

Songs collide awkwardly with each other, leaving no space in which Morrison might have to speak to the audience. It's strange to remember that this is the same guy who high-kicked his way through the massed deities of Sixties American rock in Martin Scorsese's film The Last Waltz.

Van appears to regard his past as something that happened to other people, and while his Astral Weeks album is still widely name-dropped by everybody from Dave Stewart to the Dream Syndicate, you could be forgiven today for thinking that Morrison had never heard it.

His illustrious back catalogue comes to him in disconnected flashes, if at all. Gloria, despite a vintage scrubbing guitar riff and a tremble of real voltage, can only have lasted a minute and a half. Newer songs often fare little better, and the weird incantations of Rave On, John Donne were taken at incoherent speed.

For a finale, the band had breezed through a refreshing Bright Side Of The Road and were embarked upon a powerful song called Heading For A Fall when Van abruptly terminated the proceedings and stumped off. The musicians were bundled offstage precisely on schedule, as if Morrison were in danger of incurring a fine for enjoying himself.

If Morrison rarely looked happy in his work, the easy-going John Martyn seemed willing to play all night, and encored with a jazz-fusion treatment of Somewhere Over The Rainbow which suggests he may have been doing some wishful thinking recently. But apart from campaigning for Green awareness,3 which included recording some music for a TV programme called Turning The Tide made by David Bellamy, his work with his band is currently his main preoccupation.

"My main priority at the moment is keeping the band together, because I've devoted the last five years learning (A) how to play with one, and learning (B) how to manage and run one, without becoming entirely bankrupt," says Martyn. "I almost bankrupted myself about four years ago but I seemed to have dug myself out of the hole."

Island Records were making a video of his performance for some unspecified promotional use,4 and after 20 years in the business, perhaps John Martyn's hour is belatedly at hand. Even if stardom were suddenly to burst over his head, it's hard to picture many things changing, though perhaps he'd take a holiday.

"I rather liked it in the late Sixties and early Seventies," he says. "People were more honest, there was less violent crime. This sounds like a real old codger talking, but there seemed to be more of a sense of moral well-being, and I don't feel it now." Maybe Van Morrison would agree.

1 Van Morrison played two nights at the Hammersmith Odeon with Andy White and The Damned, 10 and 11 November.
2 On 12 and 13 November, John performed at the London Town & Country Club to record the Foundations album.
3 For instance John took part in the Royal Albert Hall benefit Sound Waves For Greenpeace. 24 April 1986.
4 Foundations was normally released as a commercial video.
This article was published with two pictures in The Guardian of Friday 14 November 1986.