Feature Review: Johnny Boy Would Love This—A Tribute to John Martyn

Various Artists
Johnny Boy Would Love This—A Tribute to John Martyn
[Hole in the Rain 2 CD Set (2011)]

Two years after his death, 2011 is shaping up to be the year that British singer-songwriter-guitarist John Martyn attains some of the broader recognition and respect that eluded him during his long career. Spring saw the release of Martyn’s last recordings on Heaven and Earth [ed: here’s Driftwood‘s review] and he is now being honored with this double CD tribute album. Johnny Boy Would Love This brings together a polyglot roster of classic and alternative rockers, trip hoppers, world musicians, and the odd old folkie or two. Pulled together, as was the posthumous Heaven and Earth, by Martyn producer Jim Tullio, the set gives a fairly comprehensive tour through Martyn’s most memorable compositions. On many such tributes, artists attempt to radically reinvent the songs they are asked to cover, but most of the artists participating in Johnny Boy succeed in capturing the original dreamy mood of Martyn’s recordings while placing their own distinctive stamps on their performances.

Robert Smith’s gorgeous, heavily reverbed version of “Small Hours” makes the case for Martyn’s mid-career echoplex explorations being a significant artistic inspiration for The Cure. Clayhill’s Ted Barnes and Gavin employ banjo, vibes, harp, and orchestral embellishments to capture the upbeat, yet world-weary emotions of of “Over the Hill.” Irish chanteuse Lisa Hannigan interprets “Couldn’t Love You More” as a breathy dirge, accompanied only by a droning harmonium. Skye Edwards’s spare atmospheric version of “Solid Air” is appropriately dense and spooky, and blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa gives punch and swagger to Martyn’s “Easy Blues (Jelly Roll Baker).”

Chicago rock band Sonia Dada cast “Dancing” as a 1960s Motown show tune. Vashti Bunyan’s eerily tremulous vocal casts a spell over the electronica effects on “Head and Heart.” Equally chill is Snow Patrol’s languid, synthesizer-driven version of “May you Never.” Beth Orton’s slow, raspy version of “Go Down Easy” is accompanied by spare guitar, bass, and piano. Clarence Fountain and Sam Butler of the Blind Boys of Alabama cast Martyn’s confessional “Glorious Fool” as a gothic Memphis blues. One of the late South African singer-songwriter Syd Kitchen’s last recordings is his stirring cover of “Fine Line.”

John Martyn makes a cameo appearance playing guitar in one of his last sessions, accompanying Cheryl Wilson on “You Can Discover.” His long time friend and occasional collaborator, Phil Collins, closes out the second disc with his own, heartfelt “Tearing and Breaking.” I think the set’s title says it all—it is a safe bet that Martyn would have been pleased and deeply touched by this effective and generous tribute.

—Michael Parrish (San Jose, CA)

2 comments on “Feature Review: Johnny Boy Would Love This—A Tribute to John Martyn

  1. Great album, great review- although the “You Can Discover” singer’s name is Cheryl Wilson, not Cheryl Williams.

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