Scottish-born folk-blues artist John Martyn is a weird dude. If the musical stylings and personalities of Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, John Mayer and Donald Gibb — yeah, that guy from Revenge of the Nerds — were somehow all rolled into one, that might best describe the acoustic-based noodlings of this shaggy-haired troubadour. And that’s not necessarily a compliment, alas.
This 1978 concert DVD, shot from the German leg of a partial European tour, captures Martyn performing a dozen of his tunes, from classic cuts from previous albums (“May You Never,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “One Day Without You”) to an ample serving of at the time new-ish material (“Big Muff,” “Small Hours,” “Certain Surprise” and “Couldn’t Love You More”). As a singer and performer, Martyn seems to often purposefully muddy up his tone and delivery, trying to obscure lyrics and just skate by on the grumbly, rumbly essence of his feeeeling, along with a backslap delivery. As a songwriter, he doesn’t come across as much better here, unfortunately. Simple, repetitive couplets become grating on songs like “Bless the Weather” and “Certain Surprise,” and more interesting tunes — like “Solid Air,” penned for good friend and fellow singer Nick Drake — come across as not fully complete. Ergo, Martyn suffers the unfortunate distinction of being a lot less interesting than many of the singer-songwriters he no doubt helped inspire. He also seems a bit of a boob, or at least conforming to the stereotypes of the ugly American — swilling beer and belching during several rounds of seemingly endless between-song tuning, and introducing the effects-laden “Big Muff” as being “co-written with a nasty little negro person,” which draws a single but pronounced and uncomfortable howl of approval from the audience. Well then… how lovely.
Presented in a clear Amray case with a double-sided color sleeve, The Man Upstairs doesn’t include any on-disc supplemental features, like interview clips or behind-the-scenes footage. Its technical presentation is superb, however. Though full screen, the region-free disc offers crystal clear sound, and a quite solid video transfer, especially considering the title’s age. There are no problems with grain or other artifacts, as there frequently are with such catalogue releases. There is also an eight-page color booklet with a superb essay by John Hillarby, which gives a decades-spanning overview of Martyn’s career (he’s got another album in the works, tentatively titled Willing to Work) and also touches on the inspiration for some of his songs. To purchase the disc via Amazon, click here; to visit John Martyn’s official web site, meanwhile, click here. D+ (Concert) C (Disc)