John Martyn, Barrymore's, 323 Bank St. Tuesday only
An ardent following gathered at Barrymore's Tuesday for the awaited return of John Martyn. The Scottish singer-songwriter rejects commercial devices in his work, so it is unlikely he will ever become a pop star who plays hockey arenas. It's too bad because he's a remarkable innovator and an infectious performer.
He puts out that kind of performance in which the audience hangs on to every note. Martyn is not one to toss in haphazard licks for effect. Although he fuses a multitude of styles including jazz, folk and blues, his music is economical and streamlined.
Martyn began under the apprenticeship of Scottish folkie Hamish Imlach but long ago strayed from pure folk by introducing seemingly incompatible elements into the idiom. He now works in a trio and says that he was inspired to turn electric after hearing The Band's Music From Pig Pink.
But Martyn doesn't abandon acoustic guitar altogether. He cleared the stage for a solo set that focused his instrumental talents more clearly. He has a rhythmic, rollicking style but can also produce soothing cadences, which he calls "tea-on-a-Sunday-afternoon chords."
"You could eat breakfast off this chord," he insisted.
Martyn uses a lot of odd time signatures and weird scales but reflects more than an infatuation with unusual sounds. It is integral to his delivery. His vocal phrasing mixes jazz, blues and rock that is loose and rolls along with the music. It is a sad, smokey voice with an unpredictable edge that flashes into bursts of anguish and gruff roars that sound like Old Bluebeard.
What Martyn plays is cerebral music, but it has lively spunk, not stuffiness. It suits his character. He has a madcap sense of humor that he is willing to apply to self-effacing satire of his role as a cult artist. This down-to-earth manner seems to bring him closer to his audience. It also prompted such a parting line as "Well, now I'm going to get paralytic drunk and eat pizza."
This Canadian review was printed in The Ottawa Citizen of Wednesday 18 May 1983.