Sunday, October 12, 2008

John Martyn ... and others

New York Times pop music critic Jon Pareles recently reviewed a performance at Joe's Pub (NYC) by Scottish singer-songwriter, John Martyn (accompanied by the incomparable bassist, Danny Thompson). The review sent me in search of John Martyn videos which, in turn, sent me on Mister Toad's Wild Ride of YouTube Tangents. In the span of about 45 minutes I'd covered the waterfront: Skip James, UB40, Steve Earle, Nick Drake, José González, Joy Division, Richard Thompson, White Stripes, Son House, Howlin' Wolf, David Johansen, The New York Dolls, Iron & Wine, Leon Russell... I'm sure I could draw a schematic showing the connections and paths--my thematic searchs went from "blues" to "countertenors" to "performers with beards."

But let's get back to John Martyn who was one of the pioneers of English/Celtic folk-rock from the 60s and 70s. As a teenager, I loved all that stuff: Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, Bert Jansch... Here's how Pareles describes him:
Mr. Martyn’s style, which has lately been revived by the college-radio favorite José González, mingles the modes of traditional Celtic songs, jazz chords, rural-blues fingerpicking, the otherworldly singing of Billie Holliday and the bluesman Skip James, a fondness for electronics like the Echoplex and, from the 1970s on, a touch of reggae. In his music, steady, precise, tightly wound yet eccentric guitar vamps — with chords and single notes ricocheting from off-beats — support waywardly improvisational vocals that are crooned with honeyed introspection or burred with a rasp.
I’d forgotten about Martyn until last year, when I was searching YouTube for covers of “Johnny Too Bad,” a reggae hit by The Slickers. I don't particularly like Martyn's cover of the tune, so will post it down below, along with a version by Steve Earle. But I did find this song, "He Got All the Whiskey," which I dug from the moment he counted it in with some well-paced grunts.

I presumed it was a traditional tune, but I've seen that title credited to Cajun songwriter Bobby Charles (who wrote "Walkin' to New Orleans" for Fats Domino), and I found it listed as a track on a Bo Diddley album, though I haven't yet found another recording. This clip was recorded as part of the "Transatlantic Sessions," a project that threw U.K. and American artists together in the studio and had them sing songs from both sides of the ocean. There are many great clips from the series to be found on YouTube. This video has Jerry Douglas on Dobro (actually a Weisenborn slide guitar), along with Danny Thompson playing stunningly beautiful upright bass. (Danny regularly accompanies the great Richard Thompson, no relation). The woman singer (and hippy dancer) is Eddi Reader, another Scottish singer-songwriter.

Here's a clip of a younger John Martyn with a solo version of the Skip James tune,"Devil Got My Woman" (sometimes called "I'd Rather be the Devil"). This video is from a great BBC music show "The Old Grey Whistle Test," and it's a fine illustration of Martyn's use of early looping technology (the Echoplex), as well as his "otherworldly" voice. I'm guessing he was one of the earliest artists using electronics this way. In a future post, I may track down more contemporary uses of looping.

Now here's Skip James doing the original version of "Devil Got My Woman." James' distinctive falsetto set me off in search of other male artists singing in that high register--a style that seems to have become prevalent in contemporary in indie rock and singer-songwriter genres. Last night, OPB radio played an in-studio performance by Minnesotan Jeff Hanson, who sounds like a countertenor out of a baroque choir, taking his voice not only to an absurdly high pitch but with a distinctly feminine timbre. Again, a topic for a future post. Let's hear from Skip James.

Pareles notes John Martyn's influence on contemporary singer-songwriter, José González, which I think is a fair comparison:

González is an Argentinian who grew up in Sweden and sounds like he's singing in folk clubs in the British Isles in the 1960's. I hear Bert Jansch more than John Martyn, but they're both Scotsmen. Okay, here's Bert Jansch, playing "Blackwaterside" which inspired Jimmy Page's "Black Mountain Side," for which every reasonable person agrees he should have received credit. I must have listened to the album this was on a thousand times in my younger days.

Jose González does a version of "Love Will Tear us Apart," which is how I got to Joy Division in my ramblings. We'll save that for another day. I also want to post more Skip James, including his tune "I'm So Glad" which I remember fondly in Cream version sung by Jack Bruce. That tangent also took me to Son House, which took me to David Johansen (ex-New York Dolls) who is a killer bluesman at heart, which took be to Howlin' Wolf ...

I was going to close this post by embedding John Martyn's cover of "Johnny Too Bad," but there's something not quite right about it to my ears -- it's overproduced, has lost the reggae beat and Martyn's singing is too mannered. I like John Martyn too much to leave you with that. Instead, here's a far superior version by Steve Earle with the V-Roys (from 1996):

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