JOHN MARTYN And. (Go! Discs)

For his twentieth studio album the veteran folkie, friend of Nick Drake and creator of rambling, inspirational works such as "Bless The Weather" and "Solid Air" has set up shop with Go! Discs, home of, among others, Portishead. And, on the opening track "Sunshine’s Better" (which also terminates the disc in the form of an unlisted remix) it shows, to good effect. Martyn’s voice is the aural embodiment of Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes, and drifting over a fairly substantial confection of drum loops, window-rattling bass and smoky saxophone it couldn’t sound more at home. The rest of the album fails to follow up though, unfortunately; it settles for an smooth AOR groove that, despite being eminently listenable, has a little too much coffee table appeal for its own good. The presence of Phil Collins, whose last appearance on a record that was actually any good was at least a decade ago, raises further doubts. Still, at least "And." fails to besmirch the man’s hard won reputation, which compared with the recent work of some of his contemporaries, is miracle enough.

JOHN MARTYN On The Cobbles (Independiente)

“On The Cobbles” is Martyn’s first album since having his right leg amputated last year – the booklet carries a dedication to “the surgical team & nurses of Orthopaedic Ward One at Waterford Hospital Waterford, Ireland”. Despite following in the wake of such a traumatic event, “On The Cobbles” finds Martyn as unruffled as ever. It’s a fuzzy, foggy work, qualities that seem to emanate from both his smoky and slurred voice and loose arrangements that favour groove over melody. Consequently, these ten tracks tend to slide past in a pleasant but undistinguished haze.

It’s certainly preferable to the anaesthetised self-covers he was churning out a decade or so ago, but only the dedicated few will listen often and intently enough to uncover the gentle tenderness that courses beneath the Paul Weller-assisted “Under My Wing”, or appreciate the jaunty, Fairport Convention-esque “One For The Road” (“I met her on a fair day/Her face was full of smiles/She helped me over ditches/And she helped me over stiles”). This song is possibly the first to enter my collection on which hangers are played. “Go Down Easy” is ostensibly a reworking of the “Solid Air” track; originally recorded in this form in 1992 for a ballet it emerges totally unrecognisable from the remodelling. Equally, the two covers that bookend this collection – Frankie Miller’s “Baby Come Home” and Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”, with guest vocals from Mavis Staples – do nothing to sap the album’s stylistic coherence.

“On The Cobbles” might not be a shockingly great work, but it proves that the big man can still be usefully productive in the studio 35 years into his career, and whilst it’s unlikely to speak to newcomers, existing enthusiasts will surely welcome it warmly.

JOHN MARTYN/DEAN JOHNSON Guild Hall, Preston 15 November 2004

It’s five minutes after the time on the ticket and the Guild Hall is still underpopulated when a bearded gentleman bearing more than a passing resemblance to Richard Thompson takes to the stage with an acoustic guitar. If that weren’t enough to endear him to a John Martyn audience he soon admits to writing songs that fall into one of two categories – short and depressing or slightly longer and depressing. He leavens songs about flailing friends and desperate lovers with a fine cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”, and still possesses a winning humility despite being championed by the likes of Wet Wet Wet and Squeeze.

As he takes his leave he hopes we enjoy the rest of the evening in the company of a musical giant, and that’s indeed one way of describing Martyn’s imposing physical appearance, a bear mountain scarcely diminished following the amputation of his right leg. He has to be escorted to his centre stage chair, and ambulates with the assistance of what looks more like a branch than a stick – in one of his more coherent asides he asks if anyone knows of openings for a one-legged sumo wrestler. There’s much between-song banter, all but a tiny sliver of which flies over my head – with an impenetrable accent slurred by years, both his singing and speaking voices sound like a heavily-encoded combination of Vic Reeves’ club singer and Stanley Unwin. All I caught was a suggestion that he try playing the entire gig with a towel on his head and what I took to be the obligatory anti-Dubya rant. Nevertheless, his utterances seemed to be more appreciated and understood by the Scotch corners of the audience.

The evening’s musical performances were similarly amorphous – it seemed at times as though it was all his excellent backing trio could do to keep him tethered. His astonishing dexterity on guitar remains undimmed, though; practically slithering over his instrument, he raddled its output with feedback and effects to produce an astonishing battery of sound. In fact, it seemed instructive to compare his methods with those of fellow Celt and near-contemporary Van Morrison: whereas Van seems to like his band to be tightly controlled, able to turn on a coin and drop solos like hats, guiding them home with hand signals and body language, Martyn just requires a steady keyboard/bass/percussion groove behind him, over which he can extemporise at will. Consequently, the songs aired in the first half of the evening kind of blended, not unpleasantly, together, the big man even managing to make Ben Harper’s “Excuse Me Mister” toe his stylistic line.

Things looked upward when the band left the stage and John exchanged his electric guitar for an acoustic, albeit one still fed through his racks and pedals. Starting with a gloriously reckless attack on what I assume was Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jelly Roll Blues”, he offered a cracked but cathartic rendition of arguably his greatest hit, “May You Never”. The band slunk back on for another classic from “Solid Air”, “Don’t Want To Know”, which mutated into the loose, jazzy mantra of “My Creator” and a hypnotic “Dealer”. “Sunshine’s Better”, arguably the finest achievement of his trip-hop year, made an appearance, its programmed loops both at odds with and perfectly integrated into the rest of the setlist. It’s certainly aged more gracefully than “Cooltide”, a soporific offering from his wilderness years that was fortunately edited from its 12 minute studio incarnation tonight.

A mixed evening’s entertainment, then. Certainly there wasn’t anything like the kind of back catalogue annihilation regularly perpetrated by Dylan, but I couldn’t escape the nagging sensation that I was outside the circle of initiates able to fully appreciate the big guy’s performance.

JOHN MARTYN Classics/Live (PBZ)

“Classics/Live” reissues a concert recorded at London’s Shaw Theatre on 31 March 1990, a gig previously available as the inspiringly titled “Live” and “Dirty, Down And Live”. Nowhere in the packaging will you find thisinformation about the performance, its unhelpful anonymity compounded by a nasty no-budget CD case , or indeed any that obstinately refuses to hinge neatly to afford access to the second disc. Even the track listing is sloppy, referring to non-songs such as “Could Not Love You More” and “Income Time”.

Nevertheless, “Classics/Live” couldn’t have started more invitingly than with the lithe and vital solo acoustic version of “Easy Blues” presented here. The following “May You Never” is equally luminous, characterfully but not excessively slurred. Proceedings don’t dip for the flights of Echoplex frenzy that span “Dealer”, although the pattering percussive excess is an ominous portent of things to come.

I can’t think of any other album that begins so promisingly, yet plummets so fully and completely. By “Outside In” we’re quagmired in synth ‘n’ sax-saturated territory, the arrangements sapping the momentum from the music, sucking it back into just another wine bar soundtrack, smooth, glossy and all too easy to converse over. “Classics/Live” rarely regains its spark: certainly, “Never Let Me Go” is pleasantly mushy, an ideal candidate for Rod the former Mod’s interminable series of “Great American Songbook” volumes if only its author wasn’t so Scottish. The closing cool waves of “One World” are some small compensation, but consider what has to be clambered through to get there.

The second disc is particularly oppressive. Despite being a Floyd fan the arrival of David Gilmour ahead of 11 turgid, directionless minutes of “John Wayne” chills my soul. “Looking On” flounders along, attempting to essay some kind of synthesised folk-jazz: its lumbering conclusion is greeted by a moment of stunned silence. A cover of the Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad” wallows in nearly a quarter of an hour of soporific noodling, a world away from the original’s street corner fable.

Lost amidst an ocean of regurgitated John Martyn product, there’s almost no reason to fish out “Classics/Live”, those glorious opening tracks excepted.

JOHN MARTYN Bless The Weather (Island)

The intervening decades spent as a slurred-voiced practitioner of vaguely Celtic adult-oriented folk muzak – a kind of Scottish Van Morrison, perhaps (both have a lot in common, the trace elements that powered their fiery younger selves still just about discernible within the murkier, less distinguished music of their later years) – have overshadowed John Martyn’s earlier work, of which this album, alongside “Solid Air”, is arguably his zenith.

Recorded in three astonishingly productive days with a small ensemble that included double bass deity Danny Thompson and legendary guitarist of no fixed relation Richard Thompson alongside members of Colosseum and Mighty Baby, “Bless The Weather”’’s loose, jazzy feel has precedents in Tim Buckley’s “Happy/Sad” and Van’s “Astral Weeks”, sounding of a piece with both but standing apart from either. Martyn doesn’t have Morrison’s pure poetry or Buckley’s larynx gymnastics, but his shorter, more structured songs lack for nothing in terms of charm.

“Go Easy” immediately backs up any British Tim Buckley claims, simultaneously ramshackle and relaxed. The title track digs in to the serious stuff, a troubled man losing his love to the storm. It also betrays a key difference in the accompaniment between this album and “Astral Music”: here you can clearly hear the players’ lines intertwine and coil around each other in ways that Van’s band of hired modern jazzers rarely manage, as if they were playing at Van, rather than with him. “Walk To The Water” offers the promise of spiritual redemption; “Just Now” celebrates gentle, reflective contentment. The gorgeous “Head And Heart” is a standout, an affecting ballad blushed with romance, although even here, like many of Van’s love songs, it’s much more about what a lover can do for the artist rather than its more generous and endearing opposite. “Glistening Glyndebourne” is a crazy jazz/folk instrumental that predicts Martyn’s later Echoplex experimentation, deliciously loose always holding at the centre. To close, the album swoops from the sublime to, well, the gentle acoustic kiss-off of “Singin’ In The Rain”, a world away from what Stanley Kubrick was doing with the song at round about the same time.

The fun doesn’t end there on this latest Island Remasters CD edition. There follows a carefully-chosen cluster of alternate takes, generally longer and looser but in no way inferior to the released versions, often bookended with studio chatter that captures the informal nature of the sessions. (It’s also shocking to hear how Martyn’s speaking voice has corroded over the decades, from the bell-like choirboy clarity briefly in evidence here to the gruff Scotch mist he emits today.) Take 3 of “Walk To The Water” is less complete but perhaps even more joyous than the album version, Take 4 of the title track has grown an extra improvised coda, there’s something shimmering beneath the first take of “Back Down The River” and, at nearly eight minutes, Take 2 of “Glistening Glyndebourne” is even more languorous than in its familiar form. There’s also a ten-minute “Head And Heart” dubbed the Band Version, although the instrumentation is only a shade fuller than before, perhaps a bit more percussive, with more extensive guitar/bass tussling. The only disappointment amidst the bonus bits is the single version of “May You Never”, presumably included more for historical than musical reasons. A full band take with a jarring sax solo, it’s uncomfortably reminiscent of Martyn’s derided series of early-90s self-covers.