Eddi Reader

Part of the English Originals Weekend tonight saw a veritable cornucopia (yep, I’ve been reading the dictionary again) of artists pay their own tribute to a man who, in my humble opinion, is hugely underappreciated. Of course John did himself no real favours during his 40 odd year career… what with all the drink and drugs… and more drink… and… oh go on… just a few more drugs. Having his leg lopped off in 2006 probably didn’t help matters either, but the overwhelming feeling that you got after he passed away last year was that John well and truly lived life to the full. Inevitably if you’re going to do that you can expect massive highs and crashing lows and listening to John’s songs it’s clear that’s just what he got. Anger, love, hate, bitterness, regret, joy… he covered pretty much every emotion under the sun and tonight’s gig gave us a chance to see how others manage to interpret what are, often, intensely personal songs.

Danny Thompson Danny Thompson

The evening started with John’s long term musical foil (and ‘curator’ for the evening) Danny Thompson setting the scene, explaining that the band here tonight had played with John for a good 20 years or so. We were getting the real deal and that’s the only reason he’d agreed to do it. Touching without being schmaltzy he spoke fondly of his ‘curly haired mate’ and asked us all to forget about the rumours and legends (and there are oodles of ‘em…) and to focus on what really matters. The songs. Amen to that.

Eddi Reader

Eddi Reader was up first, singing a song that John wrote when he was just 16 years old – ‘Fairy Tale Lullaby’. 16 years old! Good grief. It’s a bit of a dippy hippy number (lots of lyrics about elves and pixies) but it’s proof that old Johnny boy had a way with a lyric and melody at an age when most of us are still struggling out of short pants. Setting the pattern for the rest of the evening Eddi sang another track ‘Couldn’t Love You More’ before handing over to local bloke made good Scott Matthews (all of the artists playing tonight were sat on a sofa on the left hand side of the stage…a sort of musical subs bench).

Foss Paterson, Eddi Reader, Krystle Warren and Scott Matthews

I won’t bore you with a blow by blow account of every track (we got through over 20 of ‘em). I’m pretty sure John would hate all that analytical bullshit anyway, but there were plenty of highlights worthy of a mention.

Beth Orton and Danny Thompson

In the first half ‘Small Hours’ from 1977’s ‘One World’ album was hauntingly brilliant, Beth Orton’s take on ‘Go Down Easy’ (with just her and Danny Thompson on bass) was sublime and a new name to me Krystle Warren, gave us a deep, throaty version of Solid Air that made the hairs on my ‘tache stand on end.

Krystle Warren

Scott Matthews

In the second half (arguably stronger than the first) Scott Matthews impressed with a bright and breezy ‘Over The Hill’ and Ian McNabb (drafted in at the 11th hour to replace Badly Drawn Boy) injected a little Scouse mischief into proceedings by changing one of the tracks he was going to play from ‘Bless the Weather’ into a rocking rendition of ‘Big Muff’.

Ian McNabb

Beverley Martyn sang a touching version of ‘Our Love’ (a song she’d written with John for his Grace and Danger album), prefacing it with the hope that she’d “do it justice” – no worries there Bev.

Beverley Martyn

Throughout the evening Danny scattered the set with a few recollections of his time with John too, often imitating his voice (imaging a pissed Glaswegian Tommy Cooper). Once, to wind up a journalist, John just spoke in a series of slurs and guttural noises. After finishing the interview the confused scribbler thanked his host and left, scratching his head. John turned to Danny and, clear as a bell, said “I fooled him didn’t I?”

Grace and Danger: The Songs of John Martyn

The evening finished with a mass sing along of John’s crowning glory, ‘May You Never’. Personally I’d have liked a little more reverence for this song (my favourite of all his tracks)… I’m not sure about the karaoke element that crept in here and there (they even handed out lyric sheets)… but I can see what they were trying to do with it, turning it into a mass celebration rather than a funeral lament (which, as the last track of the night, it might have easily become). Danny explained that there wouldn’t be an encore. Good! I hate all that fake going off and coming back on crap… what are we… 10 years old or summat? Instead they wisely chose to leave the last word with John.

Standing ovation Standing ovation

After a standing ovation and as his version of ‘Over The Rainbow’ drifted over the speakers, the crowd shuffled out and I fancied that, somewhere, over the Town Hall, John was looking down on us all, approvingly, drink in hand, laughing his head off.

Words by Daron Billings, email me.
Photos by Wayne Fox, email me.

4 Responses to “Grace and Danger: The Songs of John Martyn @ Town Hall, Birmingham, UK – 14 May 2010”

  1. Derek Says:

    Dear Sir,

    I feel you are doing your readers a great dissatisfaction.

    I hope you will agree that the purpose of a review is to assess the quality of performers and organisers of an event, thus enabling readers to decide whether or not it is worthwhile to attend.

    Whilst your review rightly praises the performances of the special guests, it doesn’t mention the terrible ordeal I had to sit through whenever Beverley Martin plagued the stage, the sound system, the lighting or general organisation of the event.

    Please find below a letter I wrote to Symphony Hall and the curator Danny Thompson, which I believe covers what your piece of sycophancy wrongly omitted: –

    Dear Sirs,

    Having thoroughly enjoyed a perfect performance from Melody Gardot earlier in April I had been looking forward to John Martyns commemoration concert, however I found lead up to the event and the performance utterly disappointing.

    I was first shocked when I received an extra two tickets to the concert. Believing that I had accidentally ordered too many I called symphony hall to find out what happened; after ten minutes of waiting I eventually got through to be told that there was a change of venue to a more sensitive location (presumably because not enough tickets had been sold) and seats had been arbitrarily re-arranged. I’m left somewhat aghast as to why this information couldn’t have been provided with the service of the new tickets.

    Subsequently I was let down with last minute cancellations and changes of artists I had been particularly looking forward to seeing Badly Drawn Boy.

    NB: this section of ‘Derek’s email has been edited at the request of another reader who felt that certain comments were ‘unsubstantiated’ – I agree and am happy to see them removed. If Derek would like to contact me to discuss this action I’d be only too happy to do so

    When it came to the actual performance it was apparent that it had been thrown together at the last minute with most of the special guests going on with the words and music in front of them! I don’t know how much time was spent configuring the sound system, but I’ve heard better set ups in pub performances. Scott Matthews’ voice could barely heard, and in every performance the speakers were fuzzy and echoed terribly to the extent that Beth Orton was visibly embarrassed and appeared unwilling to perform.

    Furthermore, I was convinced that whoever was managing the lighting either had left in shame and put a toddler in charge, or was suffering from some disabling illness. There was no uniformity, the spotlights weren’t properly placed and the colors seemed to change at a whim.

  2. DB Says:

    Sycophancy? Hmmm…a tad strong there don’t you think? I was sat high up in the clouds and the sound seemed pretty good to me. I’ll agree that not all of the performances were totally spot on but I prefer to focus on the stuff I enjoy about an evening rather than a few niggles (although like I said the mass sing along at the end didn’t do it for me). The loss of Badly Drawn Boy was a bit of a blow to me too (although he can be hit and miss at times), but then again the discovery of Krystle Warren more than made up for it. Does the fact that the crowd gave the performers a standing ovation at the end of the gig mean that we’re all ‘sycophants?’.

    I believe that your main gripe with the event was down to the switching of the venues (yes fewer tickets were sold, so it was moved to a smaller venue) and the lack of communication about this (and other changes). I can’t blame you for getting annoyed at this stuff, but, at the risk of being branded a ‘sycophant’ again, I think there was little that the organisers could do about this.

    I’ve actually written less than enthusiastic reviews about gigs at the Town Hall before, so I ain’t afraid to call it how it is, but this was a gig I enjoyed. The beauty of the internet is that we’re all free to give our personal opinion and I’m happy to let you have yours. I’d be interested in hearing from you again if you get a response from your letter too. Feel free to post it.

  3. Wayne Says:

    I’d just like to add that I was disappointed too that the venue was changed, having never photographed at the Symphony Hall, but I felt that the performances were nevertheless given the care and attention that they deserved. If anything, the smaller venue benefited the intimacy and feeling that people were closer to the performers. Usually, bad venues, bad performers and bad events as a whole I feel can come across in my photos; as I don’t really “feel it”. I didn’t however feel that this was one of those events. I for one enjoyed it, and I think quite a few others did too.

    I’ll be interested to know how you go with your letter, as Daron says. I am sad if you had a bad time :(

  4. DB Says:

    Update: Further to Derek’s posting I’ve had an email from someone who is clearly very experienced in putting on events and their view was that the sound and lighting were ‘great’. At the risk of being accused of ‘sycophancy’ again I’m posting this feedback to give a more balanced view of the event.

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