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A fitting if flawed tribute to musical genius,
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This review is from: The Island Years (Audio CD)
There's little point in my describing this set, as Mark Berry has already done so very comprehensively. And observing that it's a fitting tribute to a great talent is hardly a new observation either. So, I'll stick to sharing a few reasonably brief personal thoughts on the set.
If, like me, you really dig the little John Martyn you know, this could be a great way to flesh out your appreciation: prior to getting this I only had Bless The Weather, the 2-disc remastered Solid Air (Deluxe Edition) reissue, and his superb The Man Upstairs DVD. Rather than acquire the rest of his output slowly and piecemeal - and being in the middle of a Martyn reverie anyway - I pre-ordered this set, to get a compete picture of his early to mid-career. And in this respect the box is a winner.
But I also discovered that the two albums I already had remain, in my view, far and away his best. Of course music is a highly subjective area, and I know many may well disagree: two fellow Martyn-ophiles visited me to watch the DVD from this set, share a few drinks, and sing a few of his songs, etc., and it emerged they both like One World best. The only studio album that even comes anywhere near close, for me at least, to capturing the same level of wall-to-wall excellence as the two I already had is Sunday's Child. Prior to Bless The Weather and after Sunday's Child I find his output variable and patchy, with flashes of brilliance, but also a fair amount of less compelling material.
As many consistently point out, Martyn came into his element live: the comments in response to the Grauniad's review of this set hardly mention the product under review, but instead find fans reminiscing about gigs of his they were at! This set contains the excellent Live At Leeds, on disc eight (plus a few previously unreleased live tracks form other gigs) - and you've got to love John for how he put that out under his own steam - but really comes up trumps by adding superb shows from Richmond, London ('72), and Sydney, Australia ('77).
Both of these concert recordings are superb, and exactly what I was hoping for in such a set. The Richmond disc documents a smaller gig, and wasn't recorded as professionally as the Sydney show, but it has warmth, intimacy, and gives you the feeling of finding a lost gem as a result. The entire Sydney set is jaw-droppingly and heartrendingly wonderful. Worthy of special note is the fabulous guitar improv he does between Make No Mistake and Bless The Weather. It's simply astonishing. And it's clear from Martyn's comments that he could feel the magic of the moment, as he thanks the audience for helping make it a special night.
The DVD adds yet further to the live coverage aspect, but unlike the live CDs, which are all solo performances, the DVD finds him largely in company (it's a pity there's not more with Danny Thompson, and that what little there is has a thin/tinny bass sound). I have to say that, apart from his duos with Danny Thompson, I often find the ensemble versions of his material not as satisfying as his solo renditions, though they are on the whole, and certainly by ordinary standards, very, very good. My favourite version of Solid Air, for example, is the one from The Man Upstairs DVD, which he plays after breaking a string whilst re-tuning; and I could cite numerous other examples. So, if, like me, you prefer that side of Martyn's work, be warned, there's a lot of late '70s and '80s material here, with full band, replete with fretless bass, noodling sax, and some rather dated synth sounds.
But, on balance, there's an enormous amount of top drawer material here, a healthy amount of which is available for the first time. So musically speaking, this set's a winner, despite a large amount of (alt. take) repetition, and even the variable quality of some of the material itself. The hardback book, or 'album', that comes with this set is obviously also a major feature, and it's fun to read as you listen. I agree with those reviewers who might like to have seen the pics more comprehensively labelled.
There are a few clunkers, mostly pertaining to the extras, rather than the music. The facsimile tour brochure is a great idea, but very poorly executed; mine at any rate is so pixellated as to be near illegible. Inexcusable in this day and age - I could've sorted it out in Photoshop! - especially in such a pricey package. And whilst the poster is at least attractive and well produced, I really can't see the point of the scrappy little 'setlist'! Someone else pointed out that a complete discography in the book would've been a good idea, and I would add that track by track musician credits might also be desirable (having said this, the album covers are very nicely reproduced, and they fill in some, if not all, of the personnel info).
One final thing I'll mention: several buddies of mine were able to download ALL the music from this set, some of them for as little as £1.49! What was that all about? I see that this is no longer feasible, at least on Amazon UK. Ok, so that doesn't give them the original CDs, nor the DVD, or the packaging and book, etc., but it does give them ALL the music, and that's the heart of the set. Can anyone tell me what happened there? I'd assume the people behind the set wouldn't be too pleased. Or was it done deliberately? If so, I have to admit it would really nark me right off!
Still, many moons ago I fell heavily in love with Martyn's magical, melancholy music, and, despite the flaws in this set - some in the execution of the set itself, and some in the variable and wide-ranging contents (but this variability was actually always part of Martyn's endearingly iconoclastic attraction) - I'm chuffed to own what is, overall, a rather magnificent set.