Review: John Martyn; Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

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The Independent Culture
John Martyn's gold-coloured electric guitar looks a little bit too small for him. He's a stout bloke, and in his hands it appears no bigger than a toy - the sort of thing he might have picked up in a department store. His shiny blue jacket seems as if it should be the next size up as well, if only to stop the buttons bursting. The net result of all this is that he doesn't quite look the part of world-class blues genius - more like someone's long-lost uncle just returned from his travels. The transformation only comes about when John Martyn plugs in and kicks off. Surrounded by a bunch of musicians half his age, he produces sounds so pure and simple that grown men and women call out his name with joy.

This is how it was last Friday night at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. Not a man to keep his people waiting, he turned up at the promised time of 9.15pm, and launched straight into the set, only to be pulled up immediately by some awful noises coming out of the speaker stack. "That's not us," he declared to the sound engineer as he appealed for improvement. John was in a great mood, though, and he soon had things under way, driven by the enthusiasm of the crowd, who were happy with life despite being forced to drink beer from plastic glasses. He performed benchmark songs as well as more recent compositions, sticking to the full band format for most of the evening. The John Martyn sound seems to have settled, for the time being, into a sort of soulful bluesiness, the perfect vehicle for his rich growling vocal style. His is the sort of 20th-century voice for which the microphone might have been specially invented, almost an instrument in its own right, floating out of the sound system like a second electric guitar.

The only source of irritation was the presence of a tenor saxophone, which tended to over-egg the pudding slightly. Surely the basic band line- up was enough. If you build a layer of keyboards, guitar, bass and drums, and then put John Martyn's voice on top of it, people will stand with their eyes closed and listen. The addition of a saxophone just seems like a bit of an intrusion. Still, he probably knows best. It's his band, after all. He knew what the crowd wanted when the show came to an end last Friday. They wanted to hear him twang his acoustic guitar, and he duly obliged. He gave them "I'd Rather be the Devil" as an encore, followed by "May you Never". This wasn't just another gig. It was something special.