Thursday, 18 August 2011

Johnny Boy Would Love This - A Tribute to John Martyn

Johnny Boy Would Smile, Giggle and Guffaw

In one sense, how could you go wrong: 30 covers of beautiful songwriting and, for those of us who know them so well, songs brimful with personal meaning and memory - and in addition a guest list of notable talent.

Of course it could all go terribly wrong if that affinity to John's recordings is so strong that the listener cannot physically and psychologically countenance any version, no matter how faithful to the original or noteworthy the performer.

I am firmly with the first possibility, and have been enjoying and internally critiquing since listening to this wonderful tribute album from its arrival yesterday to writing, and still listening, now. I also think John would indeed love this, and his essential gentle and good nature would smile and giggle at the versions that appealed; any that didn't would get a robust guffaw as he would be too confident, though humble, in his own legacy to ever feel angered or upset by someone's genuine if awry attempt at a tribute.

I am so committed to honouring John's memory and this album's part in preserving such that I will actually work through all 30 tracks. It is inevitable that my views will differ from those of other fans - not just of John but of the covering artists: that is a dynamic part of the album's offering and, of course, the nature of musical opinion itself. Platitude over, here we go:

Disc 1

David Grey - Let The Good Things Come: my second least favourite unfortunately starts the tribute! His strained vocal doesn't work for me.

Clarence Fountain and Sam Butler - Glorious Fool: these Blind Boys of Alabama give the song a wonderfully soulful and atmospheric delivery.

Robert Smith - Small Hours: there are versions on this tribute that are totally faithful to the original and those that stamp their performer's signature on it. Smith certainly stamps his Cure's emblem on this, and it works - a mimetic reconstruction of guitar effects building to a repeated capture of the song's essence. It is similar in effect to his band's excellent cover of Hendrix's Purple Haze.

Beck - Stormbringer: the first of three-in-a-row acoustic and faithful versions, a lovely cover of early Martyn and sounding, appropriately, Nick Drakeish in the vocal delivery.

Ted Barnes - Over The Hill: respected but unknown Brit, Barnes, proffers another authentic cover, with an aptly plucked banjo providing its nuance.

The Swell Season - I Don't Want To Know: double bass and soft harmonies provide a gentle take on this gentle classic.

Emperors of Wyoming - Bless The Weather: the first of the heavyweight songs to cover, it could be seen as a burden, but this americana version works well enough, though its rougher edges are anathema to John's sweet vocals on this great title song from my favourite album.

Lisa Hannigan - Couldn't Love You More: my least favourite as she makes a dirge out of one of Martyn's most beautiful and powerful love songs. It is dissonant and affected with that lazy female vocal style so prevalent today.

Vetiver - Go Easy: a lovely honest version with adherence to the song's beautiful chord sequence.

Syke - Solid Air: the other large song of burden, but done atmospherically.

Cheryl Wilson - You Can Discover: this is one I have had for a while as a pre-release, and it is a sweet version with distinctive vocals by Wilson and the bonus of John actually playing the guitar, the beginning a false start as John counts himself in, giggling.

Joe Bonamassa - The Early Blues: and the album doesn't perhaps have enough of this side of John's songcraft and performance, but Bonamassa provides, as one would expect, a finger-picked and blues infused empathetic take.

Sonia Dada - Dancing: new to me, but this is a great funk/gospel version, with Paris Delane, presumably, on main vocal.

Sabrina Dinan - Certain Surprise: again new to me, but Ennis-born Dinan provides a cool jazzy vocal on this cover.

Paolo Nutini - One World: one to polarise opinion I would guess, I quite like this and it is one of the more distinctive versions, making the song his own, but if you don't like Nutini's vocal then you won't be endeared to the ownership. I think John would be smiling at individual takes like this and the others on this tribute.

Disc 2

Snow Patrol - May You Never: I didn't want to like this, and don't. It's a blatant enough prejudice, but here underpinned by pretentious light orchestration.

Beth Orton - Go Down Easy: but so quickly back on track, this has sweet melodic guitar to mirror the emotive vocal, with piano echoing this too.

The Bombay Bicycle Club - Fairy Tale Lullaby: this captures the folk-innocence of this lovely song, sweet harmonies and a tambourine as requisite tools.

Syd Kitchen - Fine Lines: the late Kitchen provides the most idiosyncratic take on the whole album, its chanted opening and flute accompaniment setting the scene for the most original version of a song from John's first experimental album.

Vashti Bunyan - Head & Heart: my all-time favourite Martyn song, I was positively expectant in as much as Bunyan has her own distinctive musical legacy, and here, her vulnerable voice is empathetic to another of John's memorable musings on love.

Morcheeba - Run Honey Run: a lesser known song and thus less 'baggage' in the covering stakes, this is effective enough.

Nicholas Barron - Angeline: another newbie to me, the folk and blues guitarist from Chicago provides an oxymoronically and loudly whispered but ultimately sparse take on an 80s Martyn classic.

John Smith - Walk To The Water: good to see Smith on this album, I saw him supporting Martyn at a Birmingham gig and thus he has earned his covering stripes. This is a wonderfully faithful version, Martynesque guitar slapping and neat harmonies and another beautiful, beautiful song.

Judie Tzuke - Hurt in Your Heart: this is such a powerful, heartfelt song it needed a big vocal to carry that and I thought Judie would deliver, but it is a little subdued for me.

Jim Tullio - Road To Ruin: Jim, along with Gary Pollitt, produced Martyn's final posthumous album Heaven and Earth. His version of another early Martyn classic has a strong vocal, slows the song down, and includes a short fiddle solo.

Oh My God - John Wayne: one of the great growling Martyn songs - brilliant live - this has the most aggressive and therefore appropriate vocal delivery on the album.

The Black Ships - Rope Soul'd: an OK version.

Ultan Conlon - Back to Stay: well these guys earned their tribute stripes with the superb Really Gone featuring John Martyn and John Conneely dueting, and Martyn in such gruff vocal distinction. This is a pretty version and a vocal opposite to the one I have just described.

Brendan Cambell - Anna: John's signature echoplex gets an airing, and this beautiful song is beautifully sung.

Phil Collins - Tearing and Breaking: another one to polarise. Lyrics by John, music by Phil, this will be for some over-produced with its polished and overdubbed Collins choric harmonies dominating the song. It is what it is and as a great friend of Martyn's, both personally and musically, I respect the tribute. Phil Collins perhaps has the most stripes of all on this tribute.

Out of interest, here are a few other great cover versions, not on this album, but out there if you look:

Courtney Pine [David McAlmont vocal] - Bless the Weather
Don Ross - Head & Heart
Caparcallie - Don't You Go
Catie Curtis - Don't Want To Know
Bridget St John - Head & Heart
Taj Mahal - Love Up
America - Head & Heart
Richie Havens - Don't Want To Know
Rod Stewart - May You Never


  1. I'm buying this asap! It sounds like a fitting tribute to JM and I love the image of the big man himself giggling! I still love the covers compilation you did for me though. We'll see if this one manages to match it.

  2. Yes, you'll love this. I have listened more since my review and whilst it hasn't altered my view about what I liked least [a relative term] many are even stronger than I first heard. Like any good music, it grows, and its excellence is essentially in the genuine tribute from such a wide spectrum of devotees.