Live In Concert At The Cambridge Folk Festival

1 Dec 2003
Written by: 
David Stubbs

Although he started out as a folkie, the notion of John Martyn playing a folk festival in 1985 borders on the absurd. But this was the Cambridge folk Festival and by 1985, his thoroughly absorbent sound had soaked in jazz, blues, rock and dub reggae, as had the festival itself. Meanwhile, his own singular musical legacy - those trademark slurred, emotionally supersaturated vocals and endlessly reverberating echoplex guitar stylings could only be categorised as Martyn-esque. Still, there's no hint of resentment from an often deliriously enthusiastic Cambridge Folk Festival audience on this July evening here, no cries of "Judas!" as he introduces an electric band whose playing, while virtuoso, is in rich and shiny keeping with Eighties pop/rock sensibilities.

A John Martyn gig was always liable to be a boisterous, occasionally volatile affair. Longtime fans swap tales of onstage vomiting, the time he and the band performed a striptease, and of descents into hilariously shambolic inebriation. Not tonight. The man is in fabulous form, as he plunges into a set broadly similar to the one he was taking around the country in the surrounding months, a fistful of both his and his audiences' favourites. As if to un-confirm his folk credentials, he commences with a galvinising, meat-packed version of Johnny Too Bad, originally recorded by The Slickers, part of the soundtrack to the 1972 movie The Harder They Come. As ever, Martyn pulverises his authority on it, makes it completely his own.

An abrupt change of mood follows with Sweet Little Mystery, from 1980's Grace And Danger, on which Martyn marked the break-up of his marriage to Beverley with some of the most tender, bruised and tearful songs of his career, this in particular. Check the meandering bass solo Alan Thomson sends out into the air like a lost dove. Then, back to boisterous with Big Muff, inspired by a Lee Scratch Perry monologue on sex, before a sequence of songs from Solid Air, including the title track, a homage to friend Nick Drake. Although this is an intriguing Eighties updated arrangement, it's still steeped in melancholy bromide.

Martyn yanks out an acoustic guitar for Jelly Roll Blues (aka The Easy Blues) and the perennially loving and much-loved May You Never. Only with Mad Dog Days (which he was wont to dedicate to Mrs Thatcher) and the wistful, subdued Fisherman's Dream, both from Sapphire, does he air recent material.

Finally, Dealer/ Outside In sees Martyn exit in a joyful blaze of echoplex glory, the band, including Foster Paterson on keyboards and Danny Cummings on percussion making their own waves in a choppy bath of sensual sound. This album is different in feel to 1975's rawer, less layered Live At Leeds, perhaps part of a bid for the mass commercial acceptance which always unjustly eluded Martyn. Still, this is a magnificent set and a chance to catch a true great at the crest of his form.

David Stubbs
November 2003