Cambridge, Corn Exchange, 21 Jan 2007

28 Jan 2007
The Sunday Times
Stewart Lee

Live and kicking

John Martyn, Corn Exchange, Cambridge

John Martyn’s 1970s folk-fusion experiments with the Echoplex guitar pedal have lent him the lazy label "godfather of trip-hop", but this is to damn him with ludicrously faint praise. The Don’t Look Back series of concerts, in which artists perform an album from beginning to end, last September encouraged Martyn to revisit his finest hour, 1973’s Solid Air. The original record saw the guitarist, members of Fairport Convention and Pentangle, and guests such as the jazz saxophonist Tony Coe achieve a still unsurpassed blend of songwriterly moves and expansive dynamics.

On the first night of the current Solid Air tour, however, the kind of band you’d see jamming in a cocktail bar in a 1980s Tom Cruise vehicle subjected Martyn’s masterpiece to cluttering keyboard effects, trite sax solos and session musician-style fretless-bass plonking. Martyn, now wheelchair-bound, has survived battles with the bottle, the amputation of a leg and collaborations with Phil Collins. Could he survive being made to sound like the Miami Vice soundtrack?

Whatever indignities his band heaped on his music, Martyn’s great wounded bear of a voice was still there at the centre, and when he picked up an acoustic guitar for Over the Hill, something of the charm of the original emerged. May You Never, Martyn’s signature song, originally a perfectly formed solo acoustic performance, started well, then the band joined in, the saxophonist getting so excited that he was forced to push his glasses back up his nose between blasts.

Ironically, Martyn’s roadie was wearing a Johnny Cash T-shirt, reminding us that, with the right producer, it’s never too late for a great artist to reconnect with their essential self. Even Dylan had to begin again. Martyn could still surprise us. The goodwill is there. It would be wrong to fail to mention that the evening ended with a rapturous standing ovation.

Martyn’s support act, the young singer-songwriter John Smith, was an object lesson in how taste and imagination always outweigh mere musical virtuosity: he coaxed all manner of unexpected sounds from his acoustic guitar and took daring chances with structure. The verses he sang unaccompanied, to catch the audience’s attention as they wandered in at the start, were the highlight of the night. You could say it peaked early.

Stewart Lee