When John Martyn died aged 60 in 2009, he left a legacy of 20 studio albums from a career that spanned more than four decades. Some were superb (particularly those from 1971-1980) and some veered heavily toward blandness, but at his best he was a spectacular artist; a guitarist of astonishing skill with a voice as slurred and reedy as a tenor saxophone. He was a consummate cult artist, and this tribute brings together 30 musicians who’ve felt his influence, ranging from the cool (Beck, the Cure’s Robert Smith) straight through the centre (David Gray, Snow Patrol) to the old guard (Vashti Bunyan, Clarence Fountain and Sam Butler, ex-Blind Boys of Alabama, and even, yes, Phil Collins)
It’s little surprise that most of the choices here come from Martyn’s golden age, when he was on an extended creative high and virtually every song had that magic touch; they represent the cream of a very extensive crop. The joy is when the interpretations of that vintage material become deliciously and imaginatively twisted. Robert Smith’s take on the ambient guitar shimmer of “Small Hours,” for instance, is drenched in echo before morphing from eerie sonic bliss into what could be a lost Cure song; it’s bizarrely compelling — part homage, part band advertisement. Butch Vig, working under the name of the Emperors of Wyoming, transforms “Bless the Weather,” originally a love song that was a springboard for acoustic improvisation, into something foreboding, where the menace of dark, dangerous romance looms just over the horizon. But it’s Morcheeba’s Skye Edwards who’s set herself the hardest task, taking on the dreamlike, floating “Solid Air,” the elegy Martyn wrote for his friend Nick Drake, and possibly the most iconic piece in Martyn’s canon. The result is a defiantly graceful success, more grounded than the original, persuaded along by subtle beats and textures rather than guitar and vibes, but still capturing the lost, hopeless beauty that Martyn described.
And Phil Collins? He might seem like a strange addition to the lineup, but he and Martyn were longtime friends, consoling each other through divorces, and Collins produced Martyn’s Glorious Fool at the beginning of the 1980s. His song, though, is sleight of hand, one the pair co-wrote, but something that John never recorded. Still, there’s real passion in his performance, a world away from the former Genesis man’s phone-’em-ins of recent years. Like everyone else here, he’s doing it for love, not money. It’s a reminder of the esteem in which so many different musicians held John Martyn. The man might be gone but the music certainly isn’t forgotten. Johnny Boy would definitely have loved it.