Amiable nutter… John Martyn
Stomping about the stage of the Shepherd's Bush Empire, muttering incomprehensible asides to his band, John Martyn sometimes resembles an amiable nutter basking in the glow of a gallon of Guinness. From other angles, when the lights change colour, he labours under the burden of being the first rock'n'roller ever to resemble Frank Dobson. It is only when he steps to the microphone that you start wondering whether Martyn is a misunderstood genius or merely a musical eccentric who offers flashes of brilliance.
On this showing, I'd incline towards the former. You can tell a lot about a performer from the company he keeps, and years could pass before you stumbled across a band as good as Martyn's. It is not easy to make his easy-riding pieces sound unhurried while retaining their coherence, but this lot did it effortlessly. Drummer Arran Ahmun turned the temperature up and then lowered it again so intuitively that you noticed the effect, but not how it was done. But to single him out would be to belittle the contributions of Spencer Cozens on keyboards, or John Giblin's rubbery gymnastics on the bass, or Jim Lampi's skittering forays up the neck of his mysterious Chapman stick.
Most of the band also appear on Martyn's recent album, Glasgow Walker. It is an evocative collection, but somehow it doesn't compare to their sound on stage. It's as if freezing the songs on disc reduces them to a sample of the real thing. The hints of trip-hop that now underpin Martyn's recorded sound may indicate a willingness to embrace pop's relentless forward motion, but they're too circumscribing for his music.
The difference was evident in the band's performance of So Sweet. On disc, it's a nifty little slice of ambient pop, ticking along over Ahmun's imperturbable beat while Martyn doesn't so much sing the words as allow them to escape gently from his throat. On stage, the song suddenly became fleshed out and three-dimensional, Martyn swapping guitar lines with Lampi and treating the lyric as a starting point for vocal experimentation instead of a fixed and unchangeable text.
Which merely means that Martyn is more inclined to approach his music in a spirit of jazz-like exploration, than as an exercise in pop craft. His musicians understand him perfectly, and frequently stretched out into instrumental passages which, for all their freedom, never damaged the collective fabric. Sometimes there were echoes of the shimmering spaciousness of In A Silent Way, elsewhere hints of reggae or snapping funk syncopations.
Meanwhile, Martyn continued to test the possibilities of his idiosyncratic vocal technique. In Rock Salt And Nails, he rasped and roared like a whisky-soaked gold prospector. He turned Cry Me A River into an echoing void of loss, while Sweet Little Mystery was all the more affecting for the way he kept it dangling just out of reach. "There's a place between words and music, and my voice lives right there," is how Martyn explains it. Who could express it any better?
John Martyn is on tour till June 29, including June 24 at Glastonbury
Clipping provided by Veronica Roberts