Thursday, 19 November 2009

“The Simmer Dim” by JOHN MARTYN. A Review of the June 2008 One World Records CD.

"…Thanks For Coming Up…"

This is not a new studio album, but yet another live set from the UK’s "One World Records” Label who are dedicated wholly to JM reissues and new releases. It’s a wonderful performance for sure, but the awful news for fans and newcomers alike is that it’s only ‘passable’ sound-wise.

It was recorded at the Garrison Theatre in Lerwick in Shetland in furthermost Scotland (the most Northerly town in Britain). The date was 12 August 1980 and Martyn was still riding high on his Island Records "One World" masterpiece from 1977. His audience was now split between the folk output of 1968 to 1975 (“London Conversation” and “Sunday’s Child”) and the new fans gained through the ethereally, electrified "One World" album. Personally I dug both – and his gigs of the time included music from each camp – making his concerts a superbly rounded experience.

To the bad news first…

The rear sleeve rather vaguely states "A Restored Recording" but of course offers no further explanation as to where it was 'restored' or from ‘what’. It isn’t unlistenable by any means, but the best approximation is that it’s an audience tape – it’s therefore loaded down with all the inherent crap that accompanies such things - chatter, rumble, noise, the music in the distance, interruptions between songs by people moving about and shuffling things… The 8-page John Hilarby liner notes rather conveniently don't mention anything about this…

But the real shame is that the performance is fantastic – exceptionally good. Some songs like the wonderful opener “Over The Hill” and the obvious but sweet finisher “May You Never” are just him on a lone acoustic guitar, while “Big Muff” and “Dealer” feature his famous electrified echoplex-guitar effect. The crowd shout at him and he responds wittily and warmly - including one lady who literally stops the whole gig to thank him for making his way to such an out of the way place in the fog (her words are the title above). In fact the banter between him and the audience adds extraordinary warmth to the proceedings. None of the drunken arrogance that often marred his concerts of the time is evident here - Martyn’s in superb form – witty, sharp, and enjoying himself. Vocally he’s right up there too – easily imbibing each tune with really sweet vocal work. You would imagine that the punters left that tiny gig that wonderful night feeling they’d just witnessed a little bit of Scottish magic for a pittance (£3 a ticket!).

Two rarities turn up – “Anna” was recorded for the 1978 road movie “In Search Of Anna” and receives a rare airing here. It’s a lyric/vocal version of “Small Hours”, the 8-minute echoplex instrumental masterpiece that finishes the “One World” album. It’s really lovely and has poignant lyrics about a kid in a “…dirty town, where they like to put you down…” The second rarity is “Seven Black Roses”, a mid-60’s folk instrumental he wrote to impress club owners and Davey Graham fans – it’s fast and complicated and receives genuinely impressed reaction from the crowd when it ends on clever harmonic pings. Another highlight is a truly lovely version of “Couldn’t Love You More”, but towards the end it’s unfortunately counter-pointed by a lengthy echoplex version of “Outside In” from the 1975 “Live At Leeds” privately pressed UK-only album. It goes from rocking out to lovely mellow across its near 19-minute course – and as good as it is in places - it seriously overstays its welcome and is self-indulgent.

As I say – the real shame is not that the sound is only passable – the real kicker is that you’d kill to hear this great gig in decent fidelity; then we’d be raving about one of his best live works and not using words like ‘shoddy’ or ‘bootleg’…

Released in July 2008 (‘before’ he so sadly died in January 2009) - there are two ways of looking at this release – it’s exploitive and deliberately deceptive – or it’s magic that deserves to be in the marketplace – it’s both really.

The title of the set takes itself from a weather anomaly; that far North there are as little as 6 hours of daylight during Midwinter, which produces a sort of surreal twilight the local Scots like to call “The Simmer Dim”…

It’s a damn shame that this CD’s sound doesn’t match such a lovely thought…

In a two-to-three star kind-of-a way – and at a very, very tight pinch – it’s recommended.

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