John Martyn: Solid Air
* * * * * Barbican, London
It's a warm evening, and the atmosphere at the Barbican is mellow. Tonight's concert is part of the Don't Look Back series, for which artists recreate famous albums: in this case, Solid Air, from 1973. The wheelchair-bound Martyn is bemused by the ecstatic reaction to this collection of songs, a complete Desert Island Disc of an album that includes May You Never, Don't Want to Know and the gorgeous title track. "It was 30 years ago," he expostulates, mopping his brow with a blue towel. "Sadists!"
The opening numbers set the soundworld to come: mellifluous fretless bass, subtle percussion and panoramic keyboards, plus occasional blasts of tenor sax. So far, so Weather Report, but Martyn's unmistakable vocals and guitar transport us to another space. After four non-Solid Air tunes, there are whoops of delight as Martyn launches into the wah-wah riff that starts Dreams By the Sea. The whoops continue with Man At the Station and Over the Hill, for which bassist Alan Thomson switches to mandolin.
Martyn, perhaps sensing audience disappointment that the band is not keeping to the album sequence, explains that to do so would involve changing guitars between every number. As it is, a super-efficient roadie is kept busy supplying fresh guitars with Martyn's idiosyncratic tunings.
But what makes Solid Air a classic album doesn't depend on the order. In fact, in a live setting, it works better to have the title track as the closer, and May You Never, the album's third-last track, in the middle of the set.
Martyn has written many great songs, but Solid Air contains an unfeasibly high proportion of his best ones. Yet it's not just about lyrics and melodies. He slips and slides over the tunes to create a rich hybrid of rock, folk and blues that is more like genuine jazz than the current scene's crooners and warblers. He has jazz's sound of surprise, of improvised fluidity and a distinctive sonority: there are times when his voice sounds like his guitar, and vice versa.
Between numbers, he giggles and cracks jokes, as if it's a pub gig. (It's his birthday, he tells us.) But when he plays, the confidence and power of his performance, not to mention the majesty and depth of his repertoire, blow us away.
John L Walters