Martyn Joseph, singer-songwriter from Wales, master in every aspect of his craft but even more importantly, a tunesmith with many a moving story to tell, with a passionate and compassionate view on how man forged (t)his world, a vision on how to tackle the wrongs, or at least trying to understand them, and a big beating heart for every man’s deeper longings and aspirations.
It’s hard to present a phenomenon like Martyn Joseph in a few lines. Stating he’s a professional and experienced singer-songwriter from Wales is arguably objective information. Proclaiming he’s one of the very best in his trade, a master in every aspect of the craft, respected worldwide, a tunesmith with many a moving story to tell, with a passionate and compassionate view on how man forged his world, a vision on how to tackle the wrongs, or at least trying to understand them, and a big beating heart for every man’s deeper longings and aspirations, well that’s already more of a personal opinion, needing some corroboration and confirmation. What better then than a concert in a familiar surrounding to stake Mr. Joseph’s case? So we went to De Fagot in Ingelmunster, the unlikely surrounding for a concert by a world star. So…This is it!
Martyn Joseph reminded us during the concert of his ties with Belgium. These go a long way back: halfway the nineties he did two supports in Belgium, the first one being for Céline Dion, the other for Art Garfunkel in 1995. If the combination of these names strikes you as ‘totally unexpected‘ and ‘fire and water‘, then you are absolutely right. We actually assisted the concert at the PSK (Paleis voor Schone Kunsten, also known in French as Palais des Beaux Arts…In Brussels everything has two names) where Martyn, armed only with his guitar, managed in dwarfing huge Art and his band to a mere after party…With all due respect to the great songs high pitched Garfunkel has assembled over the years and the fine band he mustered for that tour. In our piece for national so-called ‘quality’ newspaper De Standaard we simply had to come to that conclusion. And we were not alone to do so. Poor Garf!
Over the years Joseph established firm contacts with our country, always playing just well enough to come back to the same spots almost every year. ‘Just well enough’ to exhaust our stock of cans with ‘fresh superlatives for use in reviews‘, because each last concert, each last tour seemed to top the one before and meant a new high in his performances, always renewing himself and constantly adding new songs to the old favourites. At present he can practically fill a whole week of concerts, never playing twice the same song and not giving in on the quality of the gigs either. One spot where he’s practically at home is De Fagot in Ingelmunster, deep in the heart of Flanders (to avoid all misunderstandings: a fagot is Dutch for a bassoon) JP Deven and his wife Carine made him feel comfy from his first visit on. ,,I remember entering this tiny club the first time with all these old musical instruments hanging in the back of the stage. It looked like the torture room!” How he has come to love the torture room over the years!
By now he obviously has got a lot of memories connected with the club…and with the yearly Labadoux Festival, first organised by De Fagot in 1988, by the same people who started it all. Although remaining a relatively small scale family affair and nominally being a folk festival, Labadoux succeeded year after year in bringing quality acts, not only in international folk, but also in blues, rock and world music (see www.labadoux.be !) It’s moreover a festival with lots of activities on the side. They’re still proud to have had Warren Zevon as headliner in 2000. Martyn Joseph was at Labadoux in 2004 and 2007, always with smashing success, so the reviews tell us. So it was no surprise to find him on the billboard again this year, alongside luminaries the likes of Watermelon Slim, Maggie Reilly, The Hothouse Flowers, Garland Jeffreys, The Easy Star All-Stars, Chris Jagger and many, many more. This time finally we managed to go and see Martyn at the festival (in the past years we only saw him perform in clubs) We witnessed him tackling the audience in the big, crowded tent with guts and daring, sounding like a complete orchestra on his guitar, singing with his big, compelling voice, playing one gem after the other, including brand new songs, some not even entirely finished yet, getting everyone to sing in the end. Three quarters of an hour quality time and an audience that roared and cheered as never before, an unbelievable experience if you weren’t there.
So on Monday 19th October it was a more than full house at De Fagot for Martyn: the people present at the festival and having discovered Martyn in that tent, added to the usual crowd of supporters and believers, coming from near and very far. Coming late and not having reserved, confident we could easily fit in, we had to stand in the kitchen with a limited view on the artist, but we didn’t mind (and that’s not because of the scampi’s that were in the kitchen for the taking!) There’s no place in the world we’d rather have been that night, because Martyn, although subject to a terrible cold, a non-Mexican flu, once more gave it all before this ever more enthusiastic gathering.
A gathering, that’s the word, brothers and sisters, although believing in Martyn is a question of free will. How many singer-songwriters get their audience to sing from the first song? Only Martyn Joseph manages this. Mind you, we’re not into crowd singing, on the contrary, as this tends to detract seriously from the songs. Loss of concentration and momentum are the sad result. And then we don’t even talk about the poor level of ‘artistry’ of these singalong obligations… But with Martyn, it’s different. That has all and everything to do with the meaning of the verses sung. He gets the singing along to add to the song, and that’s quite unique.
One might expect Martyn to take the easy road on such a familiar spot, but it’s the last thing he will do. Instead of playing a kind of best of, he brings a mix of the expected and familiar (with a slight predominance of tracks from Vegas) with a whole bunch of new tunes, some of them still under construction, as with the Labadoux concert. He just gets away with that. After opening fiercely with I Have Come To Sing, out of the Vegas album, and getting us all to warble, twitter of even sing, playing on that old and small four string guitar with the poweful sound he discovered a few years ago, he gets into Lonely Like America, a brand new song that’s a free download on his site, with a bout of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark, fitting like a glove, at the end of the song. After this lively start, the volume drops suddenly, unexpectedly early in the set. We’re entitled to two simply magical moments, Can’t Breathe and Turn Me Tender, both stemming from the Deep Blue album, but also on the latest CD Evolved, fifteen songs Martyn has singled out for re-recording, claiming these are the ones that best define his artistic identity. The songs go right into the soul of all present: during Can’t Breathe and Turn Me Tender a kind holy silence reigns in the room, where people indeed stop breathing, overwhelmed by the heavenly lyrics: ,,Turn me tender again, fold me into you, turn me tender again and mold me to new. Faith lost its promise and bruised me deep blue, turn me tender again through union with you…”
Things That We Have Carried Here, again from Vegas, engenders a spontaneous choir on the ,,beautiful…beautiful…” line. Despite the solemnity of the moment, Martyn adds between the singing that ,,I stole this line from Bono”: humour is never far away in his overall approach. Martyn might be a spoft spoken man in the matters of the heart, but he sure knows who and what governs this planet and it isn’t ,,peace, love and understanding” as yet. At New Year he saw, as probably everyone else did, the appaling images of a father in Ghaza talking to the world’s reporters, having just lost his five daughters when Israeli rockets missed their aim (a mosque!) and hit his home. What strikes Martyn is that this man wasn’t keen on revenge, which in this case would be a very understandable reaction (think of If I Had A Rocket Launcher by Canadian bard Bruce Cockburn), but bore his lost with utmost dignity. Joseph’s Five Sisters aren’t even so much social comment as a homage to this courageous former father, who far more deserves the Nobel Prize for Peace than some presidents.
The ,,peace and justice in our time” at the end has a bitter ring to it, for doesn’t it recall the famous ‘reassurance’ of Prime Minister Chamberlain in 1938? But Martyn’s an optimist, against all odds, and believes that the good will prevail. It isn’t a naive stance, mind you. It is possible, but we’ll have to carve it with our own bare hands. It’s a people’s thing, not something achieved through dogma’s, doctrines, systems or politics. Five Sisters can be downloaded freely and in two versions on www.martynjoseph.com. He then brings Walk Down The Mountain by request, though he hasn’t played the song for so long. The words come nevertheless, with a little help from the friends. But even the lapsus linguae are an opportunity to entertain his audience. It doesn’t undermine his artistry, it underlines his confidence. Another old tune People Crazy As Me and the more recent Invisible Angel (from Vegas, once more) create a light-hearted atmosphere, an ideal introduction for the closing song of the first part. In 1996 he wrote a song for the InBetween Rounds Girl, whose ,,task” it is to let the boxing fans know what round is coming next… Actually, we can’t think of another rôle these ladies might have as this is already hard work. Martyn shows himself at his most compassionate.
After the break, Rooms For Love and Weight Of The World leads to a funny intermezzo about the ,,funk folk” label that was invented especially for him in Canada, as they could not find a suitable tag to classify his music. Journalists over there have more bright ideas, but it seems they were misled, in their endeavour to prepare the interviews thoroughly, by a friend of Martyn’s son who added a few ,,facts and figures” to the Wikipedia article on ‘Martyn Joseph‘. So he had to endure questions about his ,,famous horsemanship” and his ,,black belt in karate”. We knew he has had other sports ambition in his younger years, but… Horses? Karate? It is only fitting that he played a funky, soulful and utterly funny version of Wake Me Up, although he ends it up in a spectacular way, looping his guitar and voice until he has a whole orchestra behind him. A great guitar solo ensues after which the song dies down, leaving us all astonished by so much dexterity and musicality.
The totally new and fresh You’re The Moment gives him the chance to tell us that a song should, ideally, be played some two years before recording it, as during this period a song evolves all the time before it finds its final form, the reason why Evolved was conceived in the first place. A highlight on Vegas is no doubt Kindness, written in Toronto when it was 22° below zero and all sorts of weird scenes were taking place in Young Street. Suddenly, Martyn tells us, he was engulfed by a deep longing for home and his beloved ones and was sensing the energy that good people, in whatever condition, can generate. It’s all of this in just one song, pointing at Martyns ability to put a wealth of facts, thoughts and feelings in one song, without crushing the listeners under an avalanch of information and without disturbing the unity a song must have to be comprehensible. Between The Raindrops is next, the first tune he sang as support to Art Garfunkel in ’95, as he reminded us. The ,,peace in the world tonight” still rings while the song is mutating, so slowly than you don’t even notice, into Thunder And Rainbows, the title song of a double, well compiled ,,best of” album, that sadly isn’t available anymore, and a fine catalogue of opposites all the way down the Yellow Brick Road.
Proud Valley Boy recounts the memories of a Welsh miner who saw The Dragon coming over from America to support these men suffering humiliations on top of bad working conditions. This ,,David and Goliath in one frame” is none less than Paul Robeson, black singer who proudly fronted segregation in his own country and even ,,exported” his pride and self-respect to all who needed it, while continuously being harassed and discredited at home. Martyn confronts Kanye West and Tiger Woods with this pioneer and advocate of equal rights and human dignity. In Change Your World, Martyn begins to rap in the best funk folk tradition and tells us what good medecine is sold in Belgium (his cold didn’t audibly affect his voice) and as for the chocolates, they are verrry good. The rapping continues jumping from one topic to the other, not forgetting JP’s birthday just the day before. The happy birthday cheers transcend into the praising of Carine’s food and the fact that’s he’s brought along a few CD’s for selling and so on, anything springing in mind, finally returning to the prime funky message ,,change the world…YES WE CAN!”. It probably spounds boring, as one reads this, but it is in fact sparkling, utterly droll, funny, witty, and really funky too. De Fagot close to delirium.
But in the encores, Martyn shows even more aspects of his multi-facetted talents. The best is yet to come! Title tune Vegas, with its great story about the eighty year old taxi driver who’s having the time of his life driving through the street (no S!) of Las Vegas (a true story, as almost always), gives the Welshman the opportunity to do a prolonged Elvis Presley routine. We’ve heard these before by others, but never this hilarious and at the same time so true to the original. Well, this man would win every Elvis soundalike contest with the greatest ease! What the crowd couldn’t possibly known, is that before the concert, when someone in the kitchen (also backstage!) requested Turn Me Tender but erroneously said Love Me Tender, he sang the entire Elvis classic like we never heard before. From earlier concerts we recall other vocal imitations by Martyn, and good ones too. Cardiff Bay is next, arguably the archetypical Martyn Joseph song, on the surface just an endearing memory of a day in Cardiff, but on a deeper level dealing with a wealth of inner feelings, engendered by the father-son relationship, thus by far transcending the mere ,,sung postcard” of a nice city. No wonder Cardiff Bay is requested time and again.
But Martyn always has something up his sleeve for the grand finale. He conjures up the song he sang at Labadoux Festival in May, then a totally new one, I’m On My Way. With its simple melody and its easy, but meaningful words he got the whole tent singing. People present at the festival still remembered this particular song as it had had the same amazing impact, and now sing with him, from the first time on, as if they had never stopped singing it: ,,I’m on my way, I’m on my way, everyday a little closer on my way. I’m on my way, I’m on my way, I’m running, I’m loving, I’m stumbling on my way”. For minutes on end they keep singing it. Even after he has fittingly ended the show and greeted and thanked everyone, the audience begins again, singing these lines lustily, seemingly unable to stop the routine. It’s something we never experienced before at a concert, not in 38 years of approximately 200 concerts a year on average! A fourth encore, the requited Sing To My Soul, finally has to send us to bed (no other way to put an end to the impromptu choir), or whereever we are heading to, still floating on air, the end of a gig you wish would never end. But Martyn will return in 2010 and we will duely and timely remind him of the promise he made, somewhere during the concert, to finally come over with his full band, if possible next spring. Wouldn’t that make a nice headliner for Labadoux?
Antoine Légat (October 27th 2009)