It's not very often that listening to a performer sing one song will capture my attention. One of the occasions that it happened was when I heard the British singer/songwriter John Martyn perform a cover of the Reggae tune, "Johnny, You're Too Bad", which had been featured in the soundtrack for the movie The Harder They Come. His performance of the song, on solo acoustic guitar and singing the lyrics with a deep growl, was so riveting that ever since, I've jumped at any opportunity to hear him sing and play.
For some reason, despite his longevity, it's been hard to find his work. Here's a man who released his first album back in 1967, recorded at Big Pink (the Band's recording studio in Woodstock New York), has had everyone from Levon Helm, Jaco Pastorius, to Phil Collins play with him on his records, and is still recording and touring. Yet, if you walk into a music store today and ask for music by him, chances are you'd be greeted with a blank look. Okay, he's never had a top ten hit in all that time, and his music doesn't fit comfortably into any particular genre, but you'd think on occasion that talent and perseverance would have some sort of reward.
So, when I found out there was a chance to grab a DVD of him performing live from 1978 I jumped at the opportunity. The Man Upstairs, distributed by MVD Video, was originally recorded by the then West German television station WDR for their TV show Rockpalast at the Audiomax in Hamburg. Taken from the original master tapes shot during the evening, the show has been digitally re-mastered, and formatted so that it can be played on machines anywhere. It's a testament to the high quality of WDR telecasts that both the audio and video of this thirty year old concert are as good as they are, and in fact better than any number of shows I've seen recorded with far superior technology.
I don't know about anyone else but I think it takes a pretty special performer to be able to come out on stage by himself with only guitar and voice and be able to hold my attention. So when Martyn was introduced and walked out on his own, holding his acoustic guitar, I admit to having a few moments of trepidation. It's one thing to sit down and listen to a thirty to forty minute album, and another thing altogether to watch a guy sitting on stage by himself with just a guitar. No matter how good somebody is, it can get stale rather quickly watching one person.
I needn't have worried; watching a virtuoso play is never boring, and Martyn is not only an astounding guitar player, he is an interesting and emotive singer. For the first song he lived up to my memories of a gifted guitar player whose driving style is matched in intensity by his vocal delivery. The biggest surprise was still to come though as for the second song, "Outside In", he patched his acoustic guitar into a series of effects pedals and proceeded to wring the most astonishing sounds and tones out of his instrument.
With some players the use of effects and pedals on an acoustic guitar would have been just so much noise or self indulgence, but with Martyn it sounded like the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing. Somehow his guitar playing is a wonderful fusion of traditional English folk and Weather Report type jazz, so when he added the layers of texture with electronic equipment he merely accentuated the already wonderful sounds he was creating. I think what really separates Martyn from most players who use effects on their guitar is that he doesn't require them to make his playing interesting, or need them to disguise any deficiencies in his technique.
If it wasn't enough that John Martyn is an incredible guitar player, he also writes astoundingly poetical lyrics. The song that stood out most for me was "Solid Air", a song he wrote for his friend Nick Drake, who suffered from severe depression and ended up taking his own life. "You've been painting it blue/You've been living on solid air/You've been seeing it through/and you've been living on solid air". If you have ever suffered from even mild depression you know that the anxiety it causes makes it difficult even to catch your breath.
The air that we breath shouldn't be solid, it should flow into our lungs and fill us with life, not weigh us down and choke us. Depression makes everything seem just too difficult and even breathing begins to seem like it requires too much effort to be worth the trouble. I think what makes this song even more amazing is when you realize it was written over thirty years ago, when it wasn't anywhere near as common for people to talk about mental illness, let alone write songs about it, as it is today. The fact that Martyn was able to write such a compassionate and intelligent song in honour of his friend speaks volumes to his abilities.
The Man Upstairs comes complete with a nice booklet that takes you through the concert and gives you some background information about each song as well as the lyrics. The only special feature it includes is a track, "I'd Rather Be The Devil", that nobody knew existed as it wasn't televised in the original broadcast, but there's enough talent on display here that you don't get the feeling of being short changed. John Martyn is probably one of the most unheralded guitar players of his generation, for some reason he never received the accolades that his contemporaries did, in spite of the fact he was not only their equal in guitar work, but also an extremely gifted lyricist.
For those of you who have never experienced John Martyn before The Man Upstairs, recorded live in Germany, is the perfect opportunity to get to know an extraordinary talent. Don't miss it.