London, Shepherd's Bush Empire, 13 Jun 2000

16 Jun 2000
The Independent
James McNair

From the moment he slurred "Good evening, Shepherd's Bush" it seemed likely John Martyn was half-cut. His crapulence has always been part of the deal, and it seems to lubricate his genius. And he's an affable drunk; a big-hearted bear of a man who never seems to get a sore head. You can't help but like him.

Martyn's recording career spans five decades, and even a cursory perusal reveals impeccable credentials. As a folk-singer in the late Sixties, he was the first white artist to sign to Chris Blackwell's Island label. In the early Seventies, his friends included fellow romantic Nick Drake and Free's Paul Kossoff, both dead before Martyn was 30.

Today, John Martyn's status as a direct link to so much that we've lost is another trump card. When he opened the second half of the set with Solid Air, written for and about Nick Drake in 1973, the crowd just melted.

But there's more to John Martyn than his past glories. His new album, Glasgow Walker, includes some wonderful performances, and live, they are even better. Capable of everything from a feral bark to a languorous, saxophone-like caress, Martyn's voice made it easy for him to totally charm us. An early highlight was his take on Cry Me A River, introduced as "Fry Me A Liver" and dedicated to Hannibal Lecter.

His backing band were superb, too, happily extemporising on the various jazz, blues and world-music textures of Glasgow Walker. Jim Lampi's performance on the Chapman stick -a rather odd instrument whose multi-octave range makes it the guitarist's answer to the piano- was particularly good.

Towards the end, there was a goosebump-raising moment in The Field Of Play, a life-affirming newie that seemed to embody Martyn's belief that "your spiritual status is far more important than the status of your career". Gesticulating wildly and looking as though he was wired to the moon, he brought his ranting vocal to a thrilling crescendo that generated a spontaneous round of applause. "Sorry, got a bit carried away there," he smiled when the song was over.

Martyn's fans seemed very much like him: hardy perennials who like a drink. They coaxed three encores from him, the first a sublime version of Portishead's Glory Box, Martyn swapping Adrian Utley's angry fuzz guitar for gently evocative phrases on his Les Paul.

Other fans requested further favourites, though one simply shouted: "Anything!" You could see what he meant. On this form, Martyn could have made "The Birdie Song" sound cool.

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