London, Royal Festival Hall, 22 Sep 1979

29 Sep 1979
Melody Maker
Karl Dallas
Royal Festival Hall

AIN'T it always the bleeding same? Here we have John Martyn performing perhaps the most superlatively perfect solo gig, striking exactly the right balance between manic chaos, ruminative stream-of-consciousness dialogue, immaculate playing and direct communication of carefully constructed lyrics, and he announces en passant as it were, that in future he'll be playing with a band. Makes you weep.

Not that I grudge the lad the chance to go wherever his muse directs him, but he has been for so many years the supreme one-man band. Even when he worked with Danny Thompson, he didn't really need those bass lines to fill any musical holes. Danny's weird persona was more of a psychological foil to Martyn than a musical adjunct.

Now he's finally got it right, I suppose there is a case for saying that he can now move on and try something else. But the Royal Festival Hall can only hold two thousand or so people, so I assure the ones not there that they haven't seen him in such good form as he was last Saturday1.

In the past, Martyn has sometimes seemed to be speeding down some personal highway at a velocity too fast for ordinary mortals. The gag lines were not so much thrown away as power-ejected, and the words of the songs were slurred into a sexy buzz that made communication hard to establish on his personal CB waveband.

One observed this love affair of a boy with his jack leads and echoes and amps and one was impressed, but one wasn't always moved. How different here!

He apologised several times for the fact that he wasn't doing any new material, because that had all been written with the band in mind, but I don't think he could hear anyone complaining. From the opening Big Muff to the closing May You Never, the programme was a delightful excursion through songs which may not be exactly hits, but have certainly carved out an entirely original path in which the throbbing of a tape delay guitar can convey as much as the verbal nuance of a lyric.

He even did some fairly old stuff, like Solid Air – and, as I say, the way in which he communicated the exact essence of what the song was about made me feel like getting out all the old albums and dusting them off to find out what other glories I might have missed.

For me, however, the two stand-out songs were One World, sung against a slow, soaring high sustain on electric guitar, and Spencer The Rover, which I have long included in my personal anthology of favourite reinterpretations of traditional lyrics alongside Jansch's Jack Orion and Kaleidoscope's Cruel Mother.

The first half was taken by Rico, who seemed rather lifeless at the start, but eventually put together an intense, tight reggae set. Nevertheless, many of the audience seemed bored and tied to the bar. Music like this is for dancing, not listening, unless some greater effort is made to communicate what it is all about.

1 This places the concert on Saturday, 22 September 1979.
Material provided by John Neil Munro