Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#842 in the Series) is Johnny Boy Would Love This…A Tribute to John Martyn
There are some artists who open their hearts to us. They are the jewels, the ones that never fail you when you go back to their music. And their songs are the ones that live on, because the beauty of the truth they tell does not die, even when the artist does.
A tribute album is a tricky thing. It always sounds like a good idea, but we all know cases where the end result leaves you wishing the material had been left alone. Bringing too few new ideas to the arrangements can leave us wishing for the original. Too much re-interpretation can actually point out flaws we hadn’t noticed. John Martyn’s music came from such a sacred space within him, from such specific, intimate emotional experiences, it seemed impossible a tribute album would have a chance of lifting it up in a way that would add to his legacy.
Unless the artists who participate in the project do so out of their own deep respect and love for the man and his music. Unless they understand that what is required is for them to come from that same space, to open their own hearts. Unless the producer is himself clear about the music’s strengths and challenges, and is determined to trust the magic that lives in these songs to spread to new artists, new audiences.
Well, that is exactly what happened. And the title of the tribute Johnny Boy Would Love This…A Tribute to John Martyn couldn’t be more appropriate.
To watch John Martyn perform live was to see a man in extremes of both joy and pain – sometimes at the same instant. He seemed to be reliving experiences with the audience rather than performing songs. But his distinctive way of letting the words slide together and the gravel in his voice mixed with emotion – sometimes crying, moaning or yelling more than singing – could overwhelm his lyrics and their raw, simple poetry. The power of John’s personality was so present that you didn’t need to know the words to understand his meaning. When an artist is that unique, how do you pay tribute?
What Producer Jim Tullio understood was how these fresh versions would surprise us. The lyrics feel invigorated in the hands of these artists. And such artists! From every corner of the music world they came happily when asked, or happily asked to come, in order to contribute. Robert Smith from the Cure, David Grey, Beth Orton, the late Syd Kitchen, Joe Bonamassa, Sonia Dada and Phil Collins – all felt a deep connection (and many of them a debt) to Martyn’s work and a desire to add their music to his.
It almost seems as if the versions on this double-CD set and Martyn’s original recordings communicate with each other rather than compete. The interpretations are respectful and that firm ground presents a showcase for the creative ideas the musicians brought to the undertaking. An example is “Small Hours” which Martyn recorded with solo guitar and an echoplex, along with Stevie Winwood on synthesizer. They created a world of ambient night noise as an evocative backdrop to the raw entreaty to “Keep on Loving Till Your Love is Gone.” In the tribute, Robert Smith samples that introduction, adding his own electronic vibe and letting his voice and the lyric echo, mirroring the original to a great effect.
Clarence Fountain, one of the original Blind Boys of Alabama and Sam Butler, another alumnus of the group, take on “Glorious Fool”; their voices a perfect fit for the warning, “Half the lies he tells you are not true.”
In “Head and Heart” John’s trademark picking style added a small sharpness that cut against the beauty of the words. On the tribute, the sweetness is instead accentuated by wind chimes and the whispery, sensual voice of Vashti Bunyan. Both work brilliantly, and both versions have a steady heartbeat. In the original, bongos are beating in the background. Vashti’s version has a muffled bass drum beat that steadily if somewhat ominously propels the song forward even as it anchors it solidly to earth.
In 1990, Tullio was working with Cheryl Wilson on her record which happened to include a cover of “You Can Discover,” when he got a call from Martyn who was in New York performing. Tullio persuaded him to come to Chicago and play on the side. Cheryl’s record was never released, but when the idea for this album came up, Tullio remembered the track, thereby allowing Martyn to perform on his own tribute.
Martyn makes a second appearance on “Anna,” which is based on the same chord structure as “Small Hours” but boasts a different melody and lyric. Martyn had laid down the music for “Anna,” but was never quite satisfied with his vocals, so it too was not released. For the tribute, Tullio had Brendan Campbell sing over the perfect accompaniment, recorded years before.
The Emperors of Wyoming, a band which includes Butch Vig, the world renowned producer of Nirvana’s album Nevermind, contribute a Neil Young type vibe to “Bless the Weather.” Lisa Hannigan’s stunning Celtic interpretation of “Couldn’t Love You More” feels more like collaboration than interpretation.
And then there is the blessing. Martyn’s wish for himself and for us captured for all time by Snow Patrol in “May You Never” with its heartbreakingly simple requests:
“May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold
Won’t you please won’t you please won’t you bear it in mind
Life is a lesson to learn in our time
Won’t you please won’t you please won’t you bear it in mind for me”
Snow Patrol adds a full chorus behind the last verses as it builds to a powerful conclusion. When John performed it, the power came from repetition. He sang the refrain over and over, wishing it harder and truer each time, until the audience was simply wrecked. It is true, he would love this. So will you.
- Let The Good Things Come – David Gray
- Glorious Fool – Clarence Fountain & Sam Butler
- Small Hours – Robert Smith
- Stormbringer – Beck
- Over The Hill – Ted Barnes featuring Gavin Clark
- I Don’t Want To Know – The Swell Season
- Bless The Weather – The Emperors Of Wyoming (Butch Vig and Company)
- Couldn’t Love You More – Lisa Hannigan
- Go Easy – Vetiver
- Solid Air – Skye Edwards
- You Can Discover – Cheryl Wilson
- The Easy Blues – Joe Bonamassa
- Dancing – Sonia Dada
- Certain Suprise – Sabrina Dinan
- One World – Paolo Nutini
- May You Never – Snow Patrol
- Go Down Easy – Beth Orton
- Fairytale Lullaby – Bombay Bicycle Club
- Fine Lines – Syd Kitchen
- Head And Heart – Vashti Bunyan
- Run Honey Run – Morcheeba feat. Bradley Burgess
- Angeline – Nicholas Barron
- Walk To The Water – John Smith
- Hurt In Your Heart – Judie Tzuke
- Road To Ruin – Jim Tullio
- John Wayne – Oh My God
- Rope Soul’d – The Blackships (feat. David McKellar)
- Back To Stay – Ultan Conlon
- Anna – Brendan Campbell
- Tearing and Breaking – Phil Collins