WHEN HE first emerged on to the folk club scene back in the late Sixties, John Martyn seemed destined to be a minority cult hero, winning favourable reviews for his album but only a small and dedicated audience for his boldly emotional songs. All that has gradually changed. First he was an acoustic guitarist, then he started playing around with electronics like a one-man Pink Floyd, but now -just to confuse everyone- he has become a full-blown electric guitar rock star, and the cult status has been transformed to mass acclaim.
On Saturday, the new-look Martyn, in dark suit, cropped hair and beard, was at the Dominion giving his second major London performance of the weekend at the end of a very extensive British tour. He was joined by a drummer, a percussionist, a synthesiser-player and an inspired bass player, who provided what was potentially slick and aggressive backing, but too often ended up as a wash of noise, bouncing around the Dominion walls. His new songs, as demonstrated on his latest album Well Kept Secret, are a careful blend of his old emotional intensity and the new musical aggression. Presented live, they were too often lost in the over-bombastic presentation.
The result was a frustrating performance in which only those who know the album could have realised that some memorable songs were not receiving quite the best treatment. Martyn has always had an odd voice, and on Saturday he seemed to be swallowing it more than ever down his throat and up his nose. As a result the lyrics were often inaudible (which led to cries of 'Sing in English' from the audience), and that was no way to treat Could've Been Me or Livin' Alone. But there was some compensation: bursts of his guitar work were excellent, and the new electric guitar hero stance hadn't affected his sense of humour. His delighted audience demanded a series of encores, but Martyn's songs deserved better than this.
This review was published in The Guardian of Monday 25 October 1982.