06 December 2004

A certain surprise.

John Martyn - Live At Leeds
Okay, it must be John Martyn month or something round here at musElectric. For which no apologies. After seeing him live last week, I went digging for old stuff. My old vinyl copies of Solid Air, Glorious Fool, One World and Grace & Danger seem to have gone the way of all flesh, but I managed to unearth this old CD reissue of a classic live LP...
Live At Leeds was, technically, a bootleg album, the only wrinkle being that the bootlegger was also the artist himself. John Martyn brought this album out under his own steam in 1976, frustrated by the music biz (and probably just plain out of money). You could only get it by mail order (unless of course you wanted to call by the house). His own record company either didn't want to bring it out or just plain didn't have the wherewithal. It was available in a limited edition of 10,000 at first, numbered and personally signed by the artist - this was in the mid-70s, mind, long before indie music reared its jangly head.

Live at Leeds got a CD reissue in 1998, and a bloody good job too. If you think about how moribund straight rock had got by the mid-70s, leaving the way clear for a bunch of pub rockers and young punks to try to break in, it's astounding that music of this quality was being given short shrift. Martyn's folk/blues/rock/jazz fusion was years ahead of its time, and the rippling, echoing patterns that he conjured up on both acoustic and electric guitar were so innovative for the time that I won't even bore you by listing the number of musicians who've been influenced by his style (but hello, The Edge, to name but one).

Danny Thompson, from folk-jazzers Pentangle, was an important part of this sound too, his woody, elastic-sounding double bass singing and thrumming like a mighty sea creature; Martyn's ideal musical foil. On the opening track, Outside In, the band reach into their (collective) sleeve and pull out an 18-minute long track that is completely impossible to categorise. If you want to call it folk, go ahead - but it has more in common with Miles Davis, Coltrane or even Pharoah Sanders. In other words, it was light years more 'progressive' than the rock bands of the day singing about elves or Yogananda. This track is particularly enlivened by the appearance, halfway through, of former Free guitarist Paul Kossoff, whose lyrical Les Paul phrases take the thing to a whole other place. A true classic of collective improvisation - a whole lot better than the bilge that Cream got away with on those overrated live albums of theirs. (Kossoff is only credited on the five bonus tracks, but if that's not him playing on Outside In, I'll digest my derby, make hashbrowns of my homburg even.)

Favourites like Solid Air, Man In The Station or (especially) Bless The Weather get a fine, sensitive treatment, but wherever possible the band breaks out into more of this type of improvisational magic. Bless The Weather, a gorgeous little tune in its own right, is completely transformed by having this sort of fairy dust sprinkled on it. Similarly, I'd Rather Be The Devil actually surpasses the original (on Solid Air) in my opinion - it original macho swagger replaced by something more puckish and playful, thanks to Thompson's nimble bass playing.

Sound quality, overall, is middling to good - nothing to write home about, but the quality of the performance transcends all that. The five bonus tracks on the CD reissue sound pretty lo-fi by comparison, but You Can Discover and My Baby Girl coast by nicely enough. So Much In Love With You is a mistake, though - Kossoff rejoins the band to play lead guitar and is obviously somewhat more, er, refreshed than he was previously. His playing is leaden and clumsy, and you can actually hear the band seem to back away from him like an unwanted drunk friend who's turned up at the wrong time. Martyn gets over this by turning up his own electric, and the band trundle through Clutches and Mailman like a barroom boogie band waiting for closing time.

Have no fear, though, they're only bonus tracks; I'm sure even the Mona Lisa has the occasional fly speck on it. And there are definitely better ways to remember a fine musician like the late great Paul Kossoff. Martyn fans will love this set; others may scratch their heads at first but if they're lucky, they'll be able to get into the unique, swirling sound that Martyn, Thompson and Stevens manage to create here. (Plus, their pisstake of Ravel's Bolero is a hoot.) A forgotten gem, and yes, JM appears to have stolen the title, and indeed the "fake bootleg cover" concept, from those London lads Thee 'Oo, who brought out theirs in 1970.

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