Music Life: Well Kept Secret
ISN'T it a bitter-Sweet Little Mystery why Ulster live visitor, John Martyn, remains one of those secretly coveted cult artists, after more than 35 years of sterling music-making? For Martyn, who tops the bill at this year's Get Down With The Blues Festival, in Downpatrick, this week, sadly remains a little-known name to the general public.Yet, it's this Scottish man's deft mix of everything from traditional folk, baleful blues, smoky jazz and tense funk, which is revered by a who's who of rock stars, such as Eric Clapton, Beck and Beth Orton.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Martyn seemed like a genuine rival for similar maverick contemporaries, such as Ulster's Van Morrison and ex-Fairport Convention mainman, Richard Thompson. But, in spite of production and support from a long line of big names, such as Phil Collins and Robert Palmer, Martyn's albums remained respectable, but insignificant sellers. Sets such as 1980's Grace And Danger; 1981's Glorious Fool and 1984's Sapphire (which contained a revelatory resurrection of that old Hollywood chestnut, Over The Rainbow), emphasised his utterly individual style.
As the 1980s dwindled into the 1990s, Martyn's star dimmed, as did his realistic chance to become a mainstream success - with recurring battles against drink and drugs. However, in the mid-1990s, the label which championed the likes of Travis and Paul Weller, Independiente, showed its faith in this unfairly neglected nearly man's artistic abilities. And it's on Independiente that he has released his 2004 album, On The Cobbles - complete with star support from Weller himself, ex-The Verve guitarist, Nick McCabe, and gospel legend, Mavis Staples.
On The Cobbles is dedicated to "the surgical team and nurses of Orthopaedic Ward One of Waterford Hospital, Waterford, Ireland". For rock's unlucky man recently endured the tragedy of an apparently mundane leg injury, which lead to a horrific infection - resulting in him having one of his legs amputated below the knee. On The Cobbles' cover - showing a silhouetted cemetery at dusk - may well be Martyn's dark-humoured reflection on his brush with mortality. But, the 10-track album is, by no means, a self-pitiful, mournful affair. Instead, it's an extraordinarily evocative, life-affirming set of songs, which beautifully frame Martyn's soft soulful croon and gruff, growling bear-like vocal delivery.
In truth, it's still not the sort of offering to break Martyn into the mainstream. The 1-2-3 Scottish gulder of a counted intro into opening track, Baby Come Home, immediately establishes that fact. There are commercially accessible tunes such as Under My Wing, the sort of light airy, laid-back blues love song that Norah Jones specialises in. One For The Road evokes the melodic strength of past Martyn cult classics, like May You Never and Sweet Little Mystery.
But, much more enticing are sparse, experimental outings, such as the atmospheric and challenging, vocally-slurred Back To Marseilles; the dissonant guitar-filled fatalism of Ghosts; the jazzy cinematic sweep of My Creator and the edgy, confrontational, groovy funk of Cobbles. And, Martyn's astonishingly black-sounding, soulful tone is used more as another instrument, rather than a lead vocal, on Go Down Easy.
Reports from recent live shows are also reassuring. For, even though he now sometimes has to play guitar in his wheelchair, magical Martyn is still musically flying on Solid Air.
John Martyn headlines the Get Down With The Blues Festival, at The Mill, Drumcullen Road, Ballydugan, Downpatrick, this Saturday. Tickets, limited to 500, are priced at £ 20, and are available from Ticketmaster and a number of other outlets. Other festival bill acts are Rev Doc And The Congregation; Rab McCullough; The Ronnie Greer/Kenny McDowell Band; The S**t Hot Helicopters; The Answer and Brownstone.
Look out for an insightful new documentary on Martyn, Johnny Too Bad, on BBC2 this Friday.