Edinburgh, Queen's Hall, 18 Aug 1989

20 Aug 1989
The Observer
Rob Adams
ROB ADAMS on the pleasures of listening to idiosyncratic rocker John Martyn

AFTER 20-odd years in the business John Martyn still creates a buzz of anticipation among his fans, a cross section of the long-serving and the newly acquired. As the house lights dim the cries vary from 'Hi, John,' to 'want a joint?' Martyn doesn't need that kind of high any more; he functions on a smoking mixture of adrenaline and Bacardi and coke. He comes on looking like a 'Big Bang' casualty; smart suit and open-necked, bold, striped shirt. Then, his jacket comes off and, sleeves folded rather than rolled up his arms, he sets to work like a labourer.

There's no band these days. Martyn never could keep one together. He's always been at his best either solo or with one sparring partner. In the Seventies that was bassist Danny Thompson, a relaxed setting (as the PR people like to say) if ever there was one, sometimes so relaxed that they stayed on stage for hours because they'd never make it off again.

The current foil is Foster Paterson, a one-man band of keyboards and synthesised bass and drums. It is barely a relaxed situation -the nervous energy floods off Martyn's forehead from the opening bar- but it works wonderfully well. Big Muff has Martyn pulling manically at the guitar strings while Paterson pumps out a bickering base line and wide-voiced chords. The kids at the front bop in their seats, partly slaves to the rhythm, partly thanks to the memory of the record.

Martyn's songs are more mood than message, temporary accommodation for the audience to move into until it is time to go home. The lyrics are mostly something for his tongue to chew while his mouth makes the music.

Animal aggression flows into l Am John Wayne, all workhouse percussion and pomp rock keyboards. A back to the roots session follows. Dismissing Paterson and picking up his old acoustic ('my ozone friendly guitar, ha ha') he smacks Jelly Roll into action, clawhammer working ferociously.

His anthem May You Never is there too. This song has everything that Paul McCartney's Yesterday has except the earning potential. He still sings it as though he means it. Come to think of it, there is nothing of the 'just churning it out' anywhere in his performance. You get the sense that each gig has a purpose and character of its own.

Martyn's music never suited the lonely bedsitter image, always being too social for that. You bought the albums and you had to let your mates hear them. Johnny Too Bad is pure dancehall. There's an urge to boogie but the floor stays empty. Martyn is up there giving it disco lurch. Having followed him from upstart folky to idiosyncratic rocker it's a pleasure to watch and listen to a great original once again.

An indication of the date and venue is missing but I assume this must have been written in the context of the Edinburgh Festival. The Stirling Festival was ten days earlier and is a less likely candidate.