JOHN MARTYN BAND – The Smiling Stranger In Bremen

MiG Music 2023

Subtitled “Live at Schauburg 1983” and shedding light on a single night in the life of one intrepid journeyman, here’s the double album to capture him in a full on-stage glory.

The Smiling Stranger In Bremen

Imposing and charming even when inebriated, highly influential yet uncompetitive in terms of chart action, if John Martyn loved more than flabbergast his listeners with sonic experiments that saw him organically drift from acoustic folk to electric ambience it was perform in front of the audience. However, while there exist two live platters covering the Scottish musician’s most commercially successful period that followed in the wake of 1982’s “Well Kept Secret” reaching the Top 20 in the UK, John’s hit-parade peak, neither of those albums presented a complete concert, one running the full gamut of Martyn’s nuanced delivery. This recording of a German show should remedy this issue via shining light on various aspects of his talent within a single span of songs, the veteran keeping the punters at the edge of their seats for about a hundred minutes by delivering, despite being in a rather intoxicated state, both recent entries to his catalogue and time-tested gems.

Here, the numbers from Martyn’s latest offerings are perfectly balanced in the set list with fresh takes on familiar cuts – up to half of 1980’s “Grace And Danger” whence the unhurriedly funky opener “Some People Are Crazy” comes, and half of 1977’s “One World” which is linked to 1981’s “Glorious Fool” by a new approach to the understated “Couldn’t Love You More” and, thus, stitching together John’s past and present – although it’s emotional logic and his ensemble’s interplay that dictate the flow of the pieces. As Alan Thomson’s incessantly sympathetic bass runs often lap over the main man’s Echoplex-delayed guitar ring to roll a solo and Jeff Allen’s drums punctuate his tender growl on the likes of “Amsterdam” where riffs enter the frame to enhance the menace studio tracks only hinted at, and elevate his enchanting croon on the ethereal-yet-tangible, much-admired ballads like “Solid Air” and “May You Never” where romantic vibes feel amplified, the senses of adventure and constant development of original ideas, making the deep dives into “Lookin’ On” and “Sunday’s Child” spiritual trips, especially when Martyn’s voice and strings start to soar. There’s blissfully punchy “Bless The Weather” to push the trio’s instrumental envelope, and a groovy pairing of “Dealer” and “Outside In” to demonstrate dynamics and continuity of John’s writing method, but there’s also a stroll through “The Easy Blues” and “Cocain” to stress his rootsiness.

“Look on me as a lonely minstrel,” remarks Martyn at a certain point, but he dismisses the rhythm section for a few unplugged songs a bit later to contrast these with a tightly-woven, and somewhat fatigued, “Could’ve Been Me” and the buzzing “Root Love” once the rest of the band is back. Still, it’s “Johnny Too Bad” that’s throbbing and jiving in the epic, 12″ single, ’80s-esque manner without sounding outdated or repetitive, before the bubbly, effervescent encore of the fretboard-bending “Smiling Stranger” will ram the veteran’s ever-relevant messages home. The messages which, almost a decade and a half after his untimely passing, must finally turn this stranger’s name into a household one.


March 23, 2023

Category(s): Reviews
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