Thursday, November 22, 2012

Martyn Joseph / Luke Jackson

Colston Hall

"Where's Luke," calls out someone from the audience, just as Martyn Joseph is about to start his first encore ("No Retreat Baby, No Surrender" played exquisitely on a ukulele). Naturally, Martin takes this as cue to start taking the mickey out of his young protege..."Where's Luke? I fired him, that's where he is...It's my show...."

All bands engage in this kind of banter: I imagine it's the only thing which keeps them sane on a tour. But I couldn't help wondering whether the veteran really did feel a bit upstaged by the newbie. The previous night, Mike Harding had named Luke Jackson as a finalist in the Young Folk Awards (which was pretty much a foregone conclusion) and also as a nominee for the Horizon Award (which Luke says came as a complete surprise to him -- he thought at first they'd read his name out in the wrong category.) I do wonder what percentage of the audience were there to hear the support rather than the act.

Luke's first proper tour doesn't seem to have diminished the sincerity or honesty of his performance, although it's a much tighter set than I've seen him do before, cutting a lot of the chat and showcasing the different kinds of songs he can turn his guitar hand to. So it's not only the touching, biographical ones tonight: he starts and finishes with the abstract, rocky ones, and in between gives us a new bluesy one, and a gospel cover, and a narrative ballad as well as the bitter-sweet country-ish title track off his album. Only at the very end of the concert, in that final encore with Martyn, does he look back on his childhood and break our hearts as only he can.

It really does feel as if we are watching a career in fast forward -- he's already thinking about his second album -- and it's honestly hard to imagine where Luke Jackson is going to be in twelve months time. 

As to Martyn Joseph himself: he's entirely new to me, and I never feel confident in forming an opinion of a singer songwriter on the basis of a single listen. A splendid showman, definitely, who carries off a lot of slightly eighties mannerisms with some aplomb (He keeps addressing the audience as "Bristol", and comes down off the stage and stands on a chair at one point.) Not a gospel singer or a "Christian" artist, but there's a pretty strong streak of the religious running through his act. "This is not a good time for God", he sings "The right wing have defaced, the left wing have displaced, bigotry's disgraced..." It sounds a bit like Dylan's Material World and treads a fine line between the witty and the preachy. ("I'm looking forward to singing this in America" he says, after the first chorus which can't decide if it's "Allah" or "Allelujah".) Okay, I compare everyone with Dylan, but a performer who happily says things like "The sun remains an adoration flame / In spite of what these dungeons days proclaim" probably deserves it. (I think I detect a Dylanesque drawl in several of the songs, but at the end of the evening he goes into a very funny mimic of the great man.) 

A singer I haven't heard before proves his worth if there's at least one song which punches me firmly between the eyes. Martyn passes this test with flying colours: Proud Valley Boy is an astonishing, complex, rant in which an old miner looks back on Paul Robeson's visit to Wales in the 1930s. It has some re-world thoughts about unemployment ("It was one of those retraining schemes--a room full of discarded dreams") and a powerful central metaphor: 

A dragon came here once 
He shone like ebony 
At Mountain Ash and Neath 
He gave us dignity 
Back home some cursed his name 
And tried to quench his fire 
This David and Goliath in one frame. 

He talks about a musical torch being passed from Woody to Dylan to Springsteen, and there's certainly a strain of the angry blue collar industrial rant in several of his songs. He seems to like the oblique mythologising of the relatively ordinary: there are also several dragons wandering around On This Celtic Morning, a song about, of all things, the Ryder Cup. I wouldn't have expected a song about golf to work, but it really, really does, presumably because the singer really, really cares about golf. ("And the gods who play before us / somehow carry all our names / as tall as any mountain / but not bigger than the game") 

But he also does a nice line in soft, reflective ballads. I was genuinely touched by Clara, the apparently true story of an old man being saved from suicide by the old lady who had taken care of him when he was a baby. 

I hope we all have a Clara
Who sings us songs unknown 
Songs for the healing
And songs for the coming home.

Martyn is the sort of singer who produces a sequence of little epics; songs which imbue their subjects  with importance and significance; songs which take you on a journey. I must admit, though, that while any one of the anthemic songs was terrific, by the end of the set I felt I had possibly got the hang of the fact that Love was a good thing and he was in favour of it. 

This evening was the real thing. A young man with a guitar and pure, fresh voice wailing "I'm only going over Jordan..." and an older man with a darker, more world-weary voice growling "Mr Robeson, Sir...I hope that Tiger Woods knows your name". I have, as you know, nothing whatsoever against huge groups of musicians having elaborate, festal parties on the stage. But Bellowhead have never once made me cry.


Paul Jackson said...

I love your reviews, they often seem deeper than the songs you discuss, in a good way. I am of course biased being Luke's Dad and I am glad he is in favour with you, but I can honestly say I read them all, whoever the act is!

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thanks for saying so. It's still quite strange to me that my music criticism is read by the artists or their families - most of the things I have written about in the past has been about people too famous and/or dead to care what I say... I don't have any musical knowledge, so it's pleasing if what I write still manages to be meaningful. At least it's a way of saying thank-you to the many performers who have enhanced my life. (And say "Hi" to Luke from me when he gets back from his travels!)