[Cover Me]: John Martyn Special

‘I don’t want to know ’bout evil, Only want to know ’bout love’

Long time, no post! Apologies for the radio silence, it’s been a particularly busy month work and travel wise and haven’t worked up the moxy to write much even though there are worthy things to write about. I’ve finally gotten off my arse though so expect a full week or so of sporadic posting as I catch up. To kick us off I wanted to do a ‘Cover Me’ special on one of my favourite artists: John Martyn

John Martyn was an emotional giant in the music world. From his first small bar gigs in Glasgow at the age of seventeen through to his death in 2009 at the age of sixty, John was a tenaciously pioneering and captivating performer, always moving forwards and finding new sounds to form a style unmistakably his own. But above all else, the song and the emotions conveyed in its delivery were the most important things for him. And the man left behind him a wealthy expanse of songs informed by his tumultuous life on the road. Picking up these scattered papers, a two disc tribute album to the man was released last week featuring a diverse mix of admirers and contemporaries of John from Robert Smith and Vashti Bunyan to Beck and The Swell Season. I thought I’d upload  some of the best efforts on this project.

Beth Orton – ‘Go Down Easy’

It’s not an unusual choice for Beth to pay tribute to John Martyn considering that one of her earliest successes  was a duo rendition with William Orbit of John’s classic ‘I Don’t Want to Know’ (which appears on the album as performed by The Swell Season). Though Beth’s rendition is fairly close to John’s Solid Air original, that does not damn Beth as being lazy or complacent. The energy and atmosphere John brought to his songs is near impossible to emulate, as is the difficulty of playing the songs he wrote. Beth here manages to recreate the woozy, soporific cradle rocking delivery that John imbued into the original beautifully, and it works equally well from Beth’s female perspective as it does from John’s male perspective.

John Smith – ‘Walk To the Water’

Another artist literally indebted to John Martyn, the budding John Smith was encouraged by him to follow his career as a performer and was even taken under the wing of another late British folk legend Davy Graham. An early song from Martyn’s Bless the Weather, Smith gives it a more energetic performance than the muddied version that appears on the original album. Smith begins with an eastern guitar influenced introduction before settling into Martyn’s staple percussive guitar slapping groove and a vocal delivery reminiscent of Martyn as he describes a woman unlike any other. Smith definitely pays credit to his predecessor here and is undoubtedly a talent to look out for in future.

Sam Butler & Clarence Fountain – ‘Glorious Fool’

‘Glorious Fool’ from the album of the same name is a fairly mellow song from John Martyn’s more obscure and, dare I say it, less noteworthy era of his career. However in the hands of Blind Boys of Alabama members Sam Butler and founder Clarence Fountain, ‘Glorious Fool’ is given a gospel resurrection. Lazily floating along on a Delta blues back beat and rhythm guitar, Sam and Clarence’s gospel preaching delivery and the occasional explosion of religious fervour brings John’s tale of a deceiver into glorious life.

John Martyn – ‘Glory Box’ (Originally by Portishead)

And finally to finish, a cover by the big man himself. Portishead have long been a favourite of mine and their most known song is a formidable piece of seductive, yearning pop. On 1998 cover album The Church With One Bell, John brought his unmistakable jazz-blues approach and made ‘Glory Box’ his own with a slow, swirling portrayal of bedroom drama. John tweaks the lyrics slightly so the song comes from a male perspective, but what is important is that the dual brooding vulnerability and yearning of the chorus line ‘Give me a reason to love you’ remains intact.

Johnny Boy Would Love This is available from Amazon now.


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