Salford, The Lowry, 8 May 2004

8 May 2004
The Guardian
Dave Simpson

John Martyn

Lowry, Salford

* * * * *

If John Martyn hadn't become a folk/blues/rock legend, he could have knocked out a career as a mimic. At one point, he perfectly impersonates Alf Garnett. At another, he adopts the voice of what can only be described as a northern-English, butch but camp transvestite.

Martyn's most famous and accomplished act is, of course, that of the drunkard. He stumbles on clutching a huge staff - a walking aid made necessary by his recent lower leg amputation, which somehow embellishes the Martyn myth. He grunts each time he moves the chair nearer the microphone and his slurred anecdotes are charmingly unintelligible. However, contrary to his reputation as one of music's most notorious boozers, a bottle of mineral water accompanies him all night.

The demon drink has played a massive part in where Martyn is today. Sitting in a chair, tapping out the rhythms with his good foot, he is now so large that he is almost round. On the other hand, years of beers have given his voice a throaty Louis Armstrong rasp to add to his palette of hazy purrs. Words bend into unusual shapes and songs tumble woozily into each other as they would during a lost afternoon in the pub.

Touring for the first time in four years, the singer/guitar virtuoso unveils a spellbinding My Creator from his new album, On the Cobbles. He spends more time taking a rare trawl through the highlights of his back catalogue. Solid Air (sung as "Sollllddddeer") is gloriously ethereal; May You Never surprisingly sprightly.

Drunk or not, he knows exactly where he is in relation to modern music, dashing off unique versions of songs by Portishead and Beth Orton. Folk, jazz, blues, rock and soul are thrown into the heady musical punch, suggesting that Martyn's gargantuan talent can overcome reputation or amputation. When he returns for an encore, it somehow seems significant that he performs it standing up.

· At Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0870 3800 400) tomorrow. Then touring.