THERE AREN'T many musicians who can carry off a set barely ninety minutes long, almost thirty of them between-numbers chat, without leaving an audience feeling short-changed. Martyn's Croydon concert did, and managed much more. It was one of the most completely satisfying gigs I've attended in a long time.
A little over three months since his last national tour, and he's back on the road with the same line-up, the incomparable Danny Thompson on double bass and John Stevens on drums, with Paul Kossoff showing up for an encore.
Martyn's last four albums have produced some of the most unclassifiably brilliant music around. Though folk, rock, blues and jazz idioms all abound in his material, be it self-penned, traditional or standard, to label him eclectic is surely inadequate, if not downright insulting, considering the ease and logic with which he makes so many sources of influence coherent without any sense of jostling.
His uniquely individualistic style never sounds mannered or gimmick-ridden despite a fascination with electronic trickery which has been the downfall of many another musician. The use of a pickup on his acoustic guitar which incorporates fuzzbox, wah-wah, tape loop and echoplex is a considerable invitation to indulgence. Moreover, his voice is a warm breathy slurring of syllables, used more like a third instrument complementing guitar and bass than as a conventional interpreter of a written lyric.
A set which began with Easy Blues and Spencer The Rover, with just Martyn and Thompson duetting, quickly established the informal, relaxed mood which is the norm for a Martyn concert. Thompson, whether aggressively plucking, or bowing on the melancholy Spencer The Rover, waves free form lines often miles away from the melody line, but never for a moment astray from the essence of the song.
Stevens then joined the pair on drums, at first cooking quietly, tightly with brushes on My Baby Girl, building to brushes and cymbals for a long Make No Mistake suite, climaxing with a hard-hitting finale accompanying Martyn's thunderous, blitzing effects on Outside In, all the while confounding disbelief that there were any gaps to fill between Martyn and Thompson.
Kossoff finally ambled onstage for a joyous (if ragged) encore of Martyn's stab at 'dirty rock', Clutches.
Totally impressive are the sense of structural intricacy and texture which envelop every piece played, a strength we more easily associate with jazz than most rock music. Every sound has a shimmering clarity, even the dense overlay of fading echoes, giving it an everchanging slightly spaced edge. Paradoxically it's intense, muscular but always relaxed.
What's so refreshing and hard to believe about Martyn is the ease with which he presents his material, laid back but totally without false cool, almost making a virtue of the concert hall situation as 'just a big room' in fact.
With the likes of individualists like Martyn, the Richard Thompson tour a few weeks back, and Roy Harper now on the road, and all better than ever, the prevailing despair about the current state of British music seems so totally unnecessary.
We're simply not looking in the right places.
This story was printed in the On The Town section on page 38 and 41 of the New Musical Express. Supporting act were Hedgehog Pie. Material kindly provided by John Neil Munro.