Soaring on Solid Air
David Cheal reviews John Martyn at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge
On the sleeve of his classic 1973 album Solid Air, John Martyn looks young, fresh and alive, his skin cherub-smooth, his features sharp and defined.
Today, aged 58, the Anglo-Scottish singer, songwriter and guitarist is a big, big man, with a face ballooned and ravaged by time, and a body that's largely wheelchair-bound following the loss of his lower right leg through an infected cyst in 2003.
But, on the opening night of his tour, on which Martyn and his band are playing Solid Air in its entirety, he revealed that in one respect he has improved with age: his voice is more resonant and more soulful than ever. He could sing sweetly enough in 1973, but today he has the gravitas to use his voice like an instrument, rasping and doodling like a saxophone.
Solid Air is one of those perennially popular albums that crop up on 'all-time greatest' lists –though its profile was boosted last year when Martyn played it at a one-off concert at London's Barbican– and it clearly holds a special place in the hearts of many people: a friend recalls that it was a terrific "shagging" album, and I suspect that the same held –and holds– true for many of the people in the packed hall in Cambridge.
The album performance itself was preceded by a series of nice but unmemorable jazzy tunes; when the time came, Martyn explained (at least I think this is what he said in his drawling delivery) that the songs wouldn't be in their original order because it would mean too much swapping around of guitars. It didn't matter; it was still lovely.
The band were terrific, knowing intuitively when to ebb and when to flow, and, although I missed the gut-rumbling thrum of Danny Thompson's double bass from the original, Alan Thomson (on electric bass) was nimble and fluent, while sax-player Martin Winning made my spine tingle several times.
And then there was Martyn's voice. From the serene beauty of Solid Air, where he slipped and flowed like a big river, to the tectonic rumble of Jelly Roll Blues, his singing was sensational. And, all the while, his face was wreathed in smiles, his eyes creased with pleasure, his fingers dancing in the air, as if trying to touch the music.
The biggest cheers were for the folky, mandolin-driven Over the Hill and the gloriously uplifting May You Never, but the whole thing was rich, warm and compelling. For a short while, John Martyn had rolled back the years.