Saturday, May 15, 2010

Grace and Danger: The Songs of John Martyn @ The Town Hall, Birmingham Friday 14th May 2010

Part of the English Originals Weekend tonight saw a veritable cornucopia (yep, I’ve been reading the dictionary again) of artists pay their own tribute to a man who, in my humble opinion, is hugely underappreciated. Of course John did himself no real favours during his 40 odd year career...what with all the drink and drugs...and more drink...and...oh go on...just a few more drugs. Having his leg lopped off in 2006 probably didn’t help matters either, but the overwhelming feeling that you got after he passed away last year was that John well and truly lived life to the full. Inevitably if you’re going to do that you can expect massive highs and crashing lows and listening to John’s songs it’s clear that’s just what he got. Anger, love, hate, bitterness, regret, joy...he covered pretty much every emotion under the sun and tonight’s gig gave us a chance to see how others manage to interpret what are, often, intensely personal songs.

The evening started with John’s long term musical foil (and ‘curator’ for the evening) Danny Thompson setting the scene, explaining that the band here tonight had played with John for a good 20 years or so. We were getting the real deal and that’s the only reason he’d agreed to do it. Touching without being schmaltzy he spoke fondly of his ‘curly haired mate’ and asked us all to forget about the rumours and legends (and there are oodles of ‘em...) and to focus on what really matters. The songs. Amen to that. Eddi Reader was up first, singing a song that John wrote when he was just 16 years old – ‘Fairy Tale Lullaby’. 16 years old! Good grief. It’s a bit of a dippy hippy number (lots of lyrics about elves and pixies) but it’s proof that old Johnny boy had a way with a lyric and melody at an age when most of us are still struggling out of short pants. Setting the pattern for the rest of the evening Eddi sang another track ‘Couldn’t Love You More’ before handing over to local bloke made good Scott Matthews (all of the artists playing tonight were sat on a sofa on the left hand side of the stage...a sort of musical subs bench). I won’t bore you with a blow by blow account of every track (we got through over 20 of ‘em). I’m pretty sure John would hate all that analytical bullshit anyway, but there were plenty of highlights worthy of a mention. In the first half ‘Small Hours’ from 1977’s ‘One World’ album was hauntingly brilliant, Beth Orton’s take on ‘Go Down Easy’ (with just her and Danny Thompson on bass) was sublime and a new name to me Krystle Warren, gave us a deep, throaty version of Solid Air that made the hairs on my ‘tache stand on end.

In the second half (arguably stronger than the first) Scott Matthews impressed with a bright and breezy ‘Over The Hill’ and Ian McNabb (drafted in at the 11th hour to replace Badly Drawn Boy) injected a little Scouse mischief into proceedings by changing one of the tracks he was going to play from ‘Bless the Weather’ into a rocking rendition of ‘Big Muff’. Beverley Martyn sang a touching version of ‘Our Love’ (a song she’d written with John for his Grace and Danger album), prefacing it with the hope that she’d “do it justice” – no worries there Bev.

Throughout the evening Danny scattered the set with a few recollections of his time with John too, often imitating his voice (imaging a pissed Glaswegian Tommy Cooper). Once, to wind up a journalist, John just spoke in a series of slurs and guttural noises. After finishing the interview the confused scribbler thanked his host and left, scratching his head. John turned to Danny and, clear as a bell, said “I fooled him didn’t I?”

The evening finished with a mass sing along of John’s crowning glory, ‘May You Never’. Personally I’d have liked a little more reverence for this song (my favourite of all his tracks)...I’m not sure about the karaoke element that crept in here and there (they even handed out lyric sheets)...but I can see what they were trying to do with it, turning it into a mass celebration rather than a funereal lament (which, as the last track of the night, it might have easily become). Danny explained that there wouldn’t be an encore. Good! I hate all that fake going off and coming back on crap...what are we...10 years old or summat? Instead they wisely chose to leave the last word with John. After a standing ovation and as his version of ‘Over The Rainbow’ drifted over the speakers, the crowd shuffled out and I fancied that, somewhere, over the Town Hall, John was looking down on us all, approvingly, drink in hand, laughing his head off.

PS: Tonight's English Originals gig features Graham Coxon and Robyn Hitchcock! Tickets still available!!

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