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Celebrating a musical legacy

PUBLISHED: 09:34 11 September 2009 | UPDATED: 15:40 29 October 2010

John Martyn

John Martyn

Keiron Pim

The iconic singer-songwriter John Martyn died earlier this year but his music lives on, and is about to be performed live in Norwich. KEIRON PIM spoke to musician Keith James about keeping his legacy alive.

The iconic singer-songwriter John Martyn died earlier this year but his music lives on, and is about to be performed live in Norwich. KEIRON PIM spoke to musician Keith James about keeping his legacy alive.

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When the singer-songwriter John Martyn died from double pneumonia in January at the age of 60, few people could have been surprised but that didn't for a moment reduce the sadness felt by his many admirers.

Martyn was one of music's legendary hellraisers, a great bear of a man who battled drink and drug addiction for decades, a fearsome character who teased the gentlest, saddest sounds from his guitar. His oeuvre had two distinct styles: folk-inspired fingerpicking and an electronic sound that built up layers of repeating riffs through an Echoplex device. These two strands wove together to greatest effect in the mid-1970s on albums such as Solid Air and Bless the Weather, and it is this era that will provide much of the material for a concert in Norwich next week.

Keith James and Rick Foot bring their celebration of Martyn's music to Cinema City. Although they're based near the south coast, Norwich has become familiar territory for them over the last few years as they have brought a brace of impressive concerts to the city. First was their revival of the music of Nick Drake, then last year came their musical adaptation of the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca.

Keith sings and plays finger-style acoustic guitar, Rick plays astonishingly inventive double bass, and together they recreate the enduring partnership Martyn had with bassist Danny Thompson, himself a mainstay of British folk-rock. Their performance focuses on Martyn's acoustic work for two reasons, Keith explains.

“One, that is how we naturally play anyway and if we play the electronica then we are not going to be doing what we do best.

And also when this idea started to unfold, I did go through and listen to everything that I believe exists of any quality of Martyn's, right back from London Conversation [Martyn's 1967 debut album] right through to the last album.

“The material at a certain point, around Bless the Weather and Solid Air, is absolutely fantastic… and the further you go into the future from there, the more patchy and less organic and heartfelt it becomes, particularly when he started to do some work with Phil Collins.

“About four years ago, after his operation, he went and did a tour of Solid Air. In other words, everyone has settled on and admitted that that was his utterly amazing album. A very large percentage of what we are performing comes from there.”

Martyn's operation was the removal of his right leg from below the knee after he suffered a burst cyst. In his later years the Glaswegian singer settled in Ireland but continued to tour regularly, including a rapturously-received gig at UEA in May 2005.

I reviewed the concert and noted that “it's fair to say recent years haven't been kind to John Martyn. His legendary alcohol consumption has seen him put on a stone or five since his emergence in the early '70s … but the echo-laden sounds he coaxes from his guitar are as beautiful as ever, and his slurring vocals as huskily soulful. … Martyn is possibly insane but certainly very funny - and left the UEA marvelling at the paradox of this imposing madman who produces such tender music.”

Keith and Rick would be the first to admit that there will never be a substitute for seeing Martyn himself - even though for every sublime gig he played there was another that was a drunken shambles - but as anyone who has seen their previous concerts will confirm, this is about as close as you will get now to the vintage Martyn. The Independent called their performances “some of the most atmospheric and emotive music you will ever hear”. The show on the stage at Cinema City - one of a number of Picturehouse cinemas around the country they'll visit as part of a long tour stretching from now until late February - will also feature the work of a few other similar artists.

“Because no one is going to want an entire evening of John Martyn - you even get tired of strawberries and cream after a while - we'll have a couple of songs Davy Graham and by Sandy Denny,” says Keith. “We'll do something slightly cheeky, taking Angi by Davy Graham and segueing into Nick Drake's song Been Smoking Too Long, as they have the same chord progression.”

Drake was himself the subject of one of Martyn's best known songs, the spacey but utterly heartfelt Solid Air, a tribute to Drake who died from an overdose of anti-depressants in 1974. It is a song that demonstrates the timeless quality that made Martyn great: in Keith's words, his songs are an “observance of how unsettled he feels in the world we live in, and bear in mind that that was in 1974. He was unsettled 35 years ago, and now we are really in a state of madness.”

t Keith James and Rick Foot's concert celebrating the music of John Martyn is at Cinema City in Norwich September 15. Ticket details: 0871 7042053

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