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Grace And Danger: A Celebration Of John Martyn
Featuring in order of appearance:
Greg Lawson and Friends, Danny Thompson, Eric Bibb, Katie Spencer, John Smith, Eddi Reader, Ross Wilson, Lucy Rose, Rory Butler and Paul Weller.
In 2010 at Celtic Connections I saw one of my favourite gigs of all time. An all star cast titled 'Not Really A Tribute To My Curly Haired Mate'. Put together by one Daniel Thompson reflecting his deep love for his friend John Martyn (JM) who had passed away in 2009. When the announcement of this year's gig was made back in October 2018 it was the first on my list of prospective bookings. Unusually a 4 sided leaflet containing a postcard was handed out at the doors, page 1 was an image of the late John before a golden field with a rainbow in the background , the title printed on the lower left. Page 2 had a Burns quote, a picture of John and Danny and a list of performers (Graeme Taylor missing from the list). Page 3 had more pictures and finished with "Today I am in Glasgow, smiling, thinking as ever of my mate and how happy he was here...very happy, not long now mate stick me on the guest list. Whoppers as ever, Tompkins". Page 4 contained the lyrics to May You Never. A postcard within the leaflet contained as well as a JM photo a URL for the JohnMartynGroup on Facebook. It was in some ways a very different mood than the 2010 concert, Johns death still being relatively raw in 2010 but Danny's feelings for John were just as intense. Danny and Eddi Reader were the only performers at both shows. I thought that the show would be a covering of the songs contained on 1980's GRACE AND DANGER but instead the title represented John's music in the terms that he created beautiful music while forging ahead fearlessly, forever finding new ways to express the love, hurt and joy he found in life (lifted shamelessly from the programme notes). In fact only 2 songs featured from that album Hurt In Your Heart and Sweet Little Mystery. The night contained takes on 20 JM songs, one traditional, made his own by John (Spencer The Rover) and the only non JM song of the evening Go Down Slow a blues dedicated to John by Eric Bibb, more on that later. Songs were from 9 of JMs (1 with Beverley) studio albums starting with 1967's LONDON CONVERSATION to 1980's GRACE AND DANGER.
The event opened with Danny, looking resplendent in a kilt, greeting the audience with a grinning "Wotcha!", going on to tell that everyone he wanted at the gig immediately signed up to appear. Danny advised that if we wanted to know what John was really like then we should just listen to his lyrics. American bluesman Eric Bibb opened the music with a version of the very wonderful Solid Air made all the more lush with Danny's sublime bass lines and Greg Lawson's string ensemble . After a wonderful message of faith and support from Danny Hull's Katie Spencer was next, probably the least known and certainly at 21 the youngest performer on stage. Her first album WEATHER BEATEN is about to be released. She made an immediate and resounding impression on the Glasgow audience with a great version of Hurt In Your Heart. Her own guitar and voice were superb but brilliant backing from the likes of Graeme Taylor, Foster Paterson, Alan Thompson bass and Arran Ahmun on drums couldn't fail to make Katie's Glasgow Royal Concert Hall debut a very memorable one. Next up was John Smith who played the Concert Hall with JM 12 years ago and then toured with him. Fully capturing the essence of John Martyn with both voice and guitar John opened with a version of Walk To The Water that set the bar for the night very high indeed. Declaring "I really want to be in tune for this", John launched into Spencer The Rover, a traditional song that John Martyn had made his own, the strings accentuating the beauty of the melodies behind John's husky vocals. Next up a complete change of pace from one of Danny's Glasgow 'shee-ros' and long time JM friend Eddi Reader performing the very up tempo Dancing, ably assisted on vocals by Ross Wilson (aka Blue Rose Code) and Katie Spencer. Ross took the lead next, reminiscing back to 2001 , the first time he saw Danny and John, to him a life changing experience. Slowing the pace right down, he dedicated his first song Fine Lines to a lady who kept unsuccessfully requesting it way back in 2001. Perhaps she was in the audience. Danny called it magnificent and so it was. A classy rendition with elegant orchestration from Greg and players. A quite high energy version of the classic Bless The Weather followed with the band upping the ante showing just what they were capable of, Eddi and Katie supplying backing vocals. A humourous introduction to Lucy Rose, apparently having been highly recommended by Paul Weller. Sticking close to the original with only her own guitar as instrumentation Lucy delivered a delicate and well received version of I Couldn't Love You More. Along with Katie earlier, Danny 'discovered' Rory Butler through a John Martyn fan group. Rory sang and played a very self assured You Can Discover from 1975's SUNDAYS CHILD. The crowd were loving everything. Rapturous applause for the entrance of Paul Weller who closed the first set with a very creditable Don't Want To Know. It would have been interesting to hear what John would have thought of the guitar tech tuning and carrying Paul's guitar on stage and even plugging it in. That said a very good version with Pauls guitar ably backed by Graeme Taylor and Foster Paterson's playing. The crowd were definitely impressed.
Set 2 opened with Danny taking a mass photograph of the audience by way of expressing his thanks to the folks down south who made it possible for him to be here. I think this might have been Danny's only show at CC2019 this year. He was not touring with the Transatlantic Sessions this year possibly due to health issues. A couple of stories about Johns exploits followed, confronting racism literally head on (Glasgow kisses, look it up if you don't know the term)and the truth about the boxing poses. Musically the honour of starting set 2 fell to Ross Wilson, the band and strings playing behind him in top gear from the word go, Ross's voice soaring on Make No Mistake. This version rocked with a serious amount of clout not least from Arran on drums. Ross threw himself whole heartedly into a very strong delivery. Changing pace Katie Spencer delivered John The Baptist from STORMBRINGER, Katie's full and soulful voice literally wrapping itself around and inside the lyrics in a truly delightful way. Some superb guitar from Graeme complimenting the song. Enter Eric Bibb again. I must confess to some confusion and disappointment at this stage. All songs so far had been Johns. From Danny's introduction I got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that Eric had been approached to do Easy Blues. Eric talked about the song and that he couldn't get his head or soul into it for "obvious reasons". Why even bother to mention it, let alone sing the offending lines, why not find a JM song that you could play in a blues style rather than introduce the one non-JM song of the night (Go Down Slow by St Louis Jimmy ) , albeit dedicated to JM's memory. Like Eric I couldn't get my head around it, but obviously for different reasons....The mammoth task of introducing the 13 piece string section fell to conductor Greg Lawson who also arranged all the orchestral parts, he also played solo fiddle on the night!. I might add this was not his only piece of arrangement and conducting at CC2019. Eddi Reader continued with 2 songs, a very slow and deep pitched Certain Surprise and a song JM wrote when he was just 16, Fairy Tale Lullaby. Greg's ensemble and Graeme Taylor's guitar giving a beautiful atmosphere to the song. Rory Butler brought an element of danger with a solo acoustic guitar instrumental A Day At The Sea from THE TUMBLER, picking the Royal Concert Hall to try it out, living dangerously indeed but it was extremely well performed. Well told fishing stories from Danny followed before he accompanied John Smith's version of Go Down Easy with some scintillating bass, just acoustic guitar and bass, the best way for this particular song (IMO). Close your eyes and you could believe it was 1970's JM singing or as close anyone gets to it these days. Who else to follow but Paul Weller again with Back Down The River , another BLESS THE WEATHER track. Lucy Rose joined Paul, sharing verses and harmonising, for a splendid version of Sweet Little Mystery, only the second song of the night from GRACE AND DANGER, recognised by the audience from the familiar opening bars and, extremely well received. Eric Bibb and Greg 's strings combined for the classic One World. As with the 2010 show the show 's last performed song was the perennially beautiful May You Never with artists taking a verse each. Almost all artists were back on stage for the finale. In honesty it was slightly chaotic. It wasn't as chaotic as the Darrell Scott led version in 2010 but it came close. Danny did hint that it may be recorded as a charitable contribution to homelessness in JM's name, the words speak for themselves, very relevant as the homeless numbers throughout the country rise and rise, especially evident from the numbers of rough sleepers on Glasgow's streets :
May you never lay your head down
Without a hand to hold
May You never make your bed out in the cold
As the applause for this song died down the real encore of a video of JM singing Over The Rainbow recorded at The Town and Country Club, London in 1986 as part of the 'Foundations' tour was broadcast above the stage for audience and cast to watch together. Another wonderful night. Well done Danny and friends. It flew by all too fast. Another very memorable night at Celtic Connections.