John Martyn passed away in early 2009 at the age of 60 and although his passing was well noted and his life was widely celebrated in his native England, the American press and music community were noticeably more reserved. Somehow, it was fitting. Martyn had never really found his audience in the U.S. There were pockets of Martyn followers in markets such as Boston and it must be said that those who knew his music knew it well and cherished it deeply. How could you not?
Here was a guy who developed an idiosyncratic guitar style that even master musicians found difficult to replicate; he was an early world music enthusiast — or, rather, he adopted elements of world music into his own works long before it was fashionable to do so. He was equally at home in the blues, jazz, pop, and more forward-thinking styles than most. And, of course, he left behind a host of classic albums such as 1967’s London Conversation, 1973’s Solid Air and 1980’s Grace and Danger, the last featuring his longtime friend and frequent collaborator, Phil Collins (Collins would also produce 1981’s Glorious Fool).
It’s probably fitting then that this two-CD, one-DVD collection captures a wide range of artists on their best behavior — that is to say, offering performances that are properly reverential, positively understated, and surprisingly consistent. With a cast that ranges from the somewhat surprising (Joe Bonamassa) to the absolutely necessary (Phil Collins, Beck), Johnny Boy Would Love This has a great deal to live up to––this could be, after all, one of those tribute recordings where things go horribly wrong.
But nothing does. The missteps are minor, forgivable, and, if nothing else, there are all these fantastic compositions to celebrate.
Still, Robert Smith’s well-intentioned “Small Hours” collapses into its own naval. Snow Patrol’s rendering of “May You Never” reads as some kind of hipster nepotism and David Gray’s “Let The Good Things Come” is a largely forgettable opener. Conversely, Beth Orton reminds us that we don’t hear nearly enough of her with a nearly-perfect rendition of “Go Down Easy”, Vashti Bunyan sounds impossibly ageless and appropriately ethereal on “Head & Heart” and Beck’s rendition of “Stormbringer” is so uncharacteristically Beck that it couldn’t be anyone but him.
Morcheeba’s “Run Honey Run” and the Swell Season’s “I Don’t Want to Know” are equally bright spots. Bonamassa, an artist who is frequently easy to deride for one reason or another shines on “The Easy Blues” and Collins’s take on “Tearing and Breaking” is beyond poignant and easily one of his best performances in recent memory.
Of course — and you’d probably be hard pressed to find anyone who appears on this compilation who would disagree — there’s really no substitute for the man himself which is why a purchase of this and any number of pre-1981 Martyn releases is really the best idea.
The DVD companion is merely okay — it never quite hangs together in any way that the novice gets a better sense of who Martyn was and why his music was special. Most of those who speak are already deep converts whose reverence for the master, although great in song, creates an impenetrable insularity that quickly wears thin.
This is a good excuse to begin exploring the world of John Martyn.
You won’t regret it.