Philadelphia, Theater of Living Arts, 16 Apr 1994

19 Apr 1994
Philadelphia Inquirer
Tom Moon
Review: Music
British singer John Martyn, Huffamoose at TLA

By Tom Moon

By selecting Philadelphia's accomplished, neo-jazzy Huffamoose as accompanists for his current East Coast tour, British singer-songwriter John Martyn signaled he was still searching, after 20 years, for musicians sophisticated enough to enrich his austere folk-blues songs.

Martyn, who performed with Huffamoose at the half-full Theater of Living Arts Saturday, has associated with some of the most creative jazz [sic] musicians in England: Robert Palmer, Eric Clapton and Phil Collins also have been guests on his albums. His best works blend stark folkie-on-the-street observations with pained blues phrases, and require musicians who can locate, and then develop, the common threads between modal jazz, bossa nova and pop balladry.

Saturday, Huffamoose proved well-suited to the task: on Sweet Little Mystery and The Man Upstairs,1 the quartet supplied gentle, surprisingly unified backing that allowed Martyn room to toy with his melodies the way a jazz singer might.

Guitarist Kevin Hanson constructed ambitious, probing solos using Martyn's simple phrases as building material, and though Hanson likes to show off his considerable technique with Huffamoose, he displayed welcome restraint backing Martyn: every note mattered.

Solid Air, a song Martyn wrote for his late crony, singer-songwriter Nick Drake, was the show's highlight: set in a languid bossa tempo, it found Martyn enunciating the lyrics with a clarity that escaped him on many other selections, and captured the band doing everything possible to bring out the song's melancholy heart.

Huffamoose opened the show with a long and occasionally murky set featuring material from its eponymous debut. The band specializes in tricky, Steely Dan-esque song structures and equally savvy rhythm patterns, but its performance was a reminder that hip undercurrent doesn't always guarantee memorable songs. On Song About Nothing and I Wanna Buy You A Ring, Craig Elkins' brooding monotone vocals groped unsuccessfully for a connection with the musical backing; his audible discomfort squandered the mood his bandmates worked so diligently to develop.

1 Must have been Big Muff
This review was printed in The Philadelphia Inquirer of Tuesday 19 April 1994.