John Martyn - Live At Leeds

1 Oct 2010
Uncut #161
David Cavanagh


Live At Leeds


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Previously unreleased document of 1975 concert in its entirety.

By David Cavanagh

coverThe students' refectory at Leeds University led a double life in the 1970s. By day it served fry-ups to chemistry undergrads. By night, with some strategic moving of tables and chairs, it became a rock venue. The Who recorded Live At Leeds there in 1970. Five years later, on February 13,1975, John Martyn arrived, parked the Island mobile outside and recorded a Live At Leeds of his own.

Nightly explorations were occurring in Martyn's concerts at the time. A unique relationship between a guitarist/singer and a double bassist (Danny Thompson), the John Martyn live experience could consist of folk songs, jazz improvisations, chillout ambient passages and the pulsating rhythms of the Echoplex - one of several effects that made Martyn's acoustic guitar sound more like an electric. When he decided to add a drummer for his 1975 tour, Martyn chose John Stevens, a free-jazz pioneer whose rippling pulses and elusive backbeats were perfect for this woozy musical universe. Live At Leeds began with an 18-minute epic, Outside In, saturated in hypnotic echo, with an organic yet logical structure-rising and falling, rising and falling - reminiscent of the Grateful Dead's Dark Star on Live/Dead. Outside In was followed by five shorter songs on side two, including a lovely Solid Air, each one notable for its excellent sound and pin-drop atmosphere.

scanLive At Leeds was distributed by Martyn himself via mail order from his Sussex home, after a disagreement with Island about its commercial viability. In the CD era, various extras were added to it. A 1998 reissue unearthed some bonus tracks featuring the fourth man onstage that night, guitarist Paul Kossoff, who was attempting a comeback from a serious drug problem. Kossoff was in poor shape (he died a year later) and Martyn omitted his three-song guest spot from the original LP. Live At Leeds And More (2006) retained these extra tracks (in spite of awful sound-wobbles) and bolted on a disc of unrelated live performances that had nothing to do with 1975. However, Universal's new 2CD deluxe edition is the most drastic Live At Leeds redux so far. Swingeing changes have been made to the musical contents, resulting in a completely different album to the one that Martyn's fans will be familiar with. The reason, as compiler/researcher John Hillarby explains in his sleevenotes, is that Live At Leeds was never strictly 'live at Leeds' in the first place, but was really a compilation of recordings from gigs in Leeds and London. Not until its third track (Make No Mistake), some 26 minutes in, was a note of music from Leeds heard. In its new form, Live At Leeds is the previously unreleased document of the Leeds concert in its entirety, Kossoff and all, with 35 minutes of afternoon rehearsal included as bonus material on disc 2.

But if history has been revised, few would argue that Live At Leeds benefits from the corrections. It is, in fact, an inferior album to the original. The principal drawback is that the 'new' Outside In and Solid Air are not in the same alchemical ballpark as the versions they replace. More alarmingly, whereas the 1975 album contained very little speech and almost no audience input -factors that were crucial to its rapt, hushed atmosphere- the new album is blemished by endless hold-ups, chatter and profane drunken insults between Martyn and Thompson. Funny? Not on the third listen it isn't. While there's something impressive about the way these two extremely inebriated men can suddenly curtail their Sweeney-esque wisecracking and conjoin with each other in a serene musical Eden, it's a shame that the simple 'bootleg' artwork of Live At Leeds must now be adorned by a parental advisory sticker. Particularly tedious are the four minutes of effing and blinding between Kossoff's arrival onstage and the start of his first song. On the positive side, the remastering brings out the detail in Stevens' drums, there's an exciting 'new' version of I'd Rather Be The Devil, and there's still that wonderful moment near the end of Make No Mistake where Martyn moans "Oh, yes, yes, Daniel" as Thompson's fingers ecstatically climb the neck of his bass.

But the advice here is, if you're going to upgrade, keep hold of your existing copy.

This is a completely different LP to the one that Martyn's fans will be familiar with...