John Martyn has his roots in the British folk scene of the 60s, but his music has always borne its own definitive stamp. From the very earliest days he was experimenting and testing the boundaries, seeing what he could get away with. He'd put his acoustic guitar through an echo box to create those signature, rippling patterns, he'd jam with jazz musicians and stir things up a bit. Folk purists may not have liked all the drums and effects, but anybody with two ears and a brain can see that the man has always been a pioneer whose work defies categorisation. To say nothing of that magnificent, unique voice, which is like an instrument in its own right.
I'd seen him play a few times before last night - sometimes brilliant, sometimes not so great, but a hero is a hero never the less. Fans were saddened to hear of the road accident last year, in which he lost his right leg below the knee, but that loss doesn't seem to have diminished him at all. If anything, it's raised his game a bit. One of my bosses is a diehard fan, and saw him play twice last summer. He assured me that the man has never been in better form, vocally or musically. So when I got the news that he'd be playing in the Róisín Dubh, I didn't hesitate to fork out the readies. Let's just say I wasn't disappointed.
Support was by John Dickinson, a burly Northumbrian who once played guitar in Paul Lamb & the King Snakes and has, in latter days, been carving out something of a solo career for himself. Dickinson himself is something special, with a fine lilting white blues voice and an absolutely wicked slide technique. At times, you could have sworn that his six-string acoustic had transformed itself into a pedal steel, he was that good. You don't often see support acts getting encores, but Dickinson came back for a well-received, bluesy treatment of old folk standard She Moved Through The Fair.
Martyn's own set? Well, I wasn't expecting the heavens to part, or some amazing revelation. Just a well-admired singer and guitarist putting the bad stuff behind him and getting on with the job. I would have been quite happy listening to a perfunctory, casual set with some tasty newer tunes and some old crowd-pleasers thrown in. The reality was something else altogether. This was the best I've seen John Martyn play, ever - thanks in no small measure to an absolutely sizzling backing band - Spencer Cozens on keyboards and effects, Arran Ahmun on drums, and Alan Thompson on fretless bass. The man himself spent most of the gig using his time-honoured rig - that impossibly sexy Gibson SG put through all manner of stomp boxes and a Jazz Chorus amp. Between them, these four men cooked up a sonic stew that would put any diehard fan in mind of the signature ensemble sound of Martyn's mid-seventies albums. They coasted and dipped through all stages of the man's career, and played with real flair and authority. Sometimes you really felt the roof was going to spiral off. And John Martyn, since he doesn't get around as much anymore, has put on a few pounds, but this has actually made a world of difference to his stage presence. He's like a big, rumbling mountain there in the middle of the stage. A mountain with a mean guitar. (Have no fear, he also picked up an acoustic to play some oldies like May You Never.)
When I got home, I got out a compilation CD of some of his best tunes and thought I'd listen to some of the old favs again before I went to bed. In the end the CD went unplayed, because the sounds I'd just heard were still ringing in my head, and I didn't want to disturb them. They're still ringing away, in fact.
Check out Big Muff, the homepage of the John Martyn Appreciation Society. There's also The John Martyn Website, a well-put-together fan page done with John's endorsement, which features some welcome guitar tabs and stories from the man's career.
I got lucky and managed to see him on Tuesday as well.