John Martyn :: Live At Leeds

When John Martyn set up shop at the Leeds University Refectory, the place was still smoking from legendary sets laid down there by The Who and The Groundhogs just a few years prior. Little did he know, Martyn was about to complete the Leeds trifecta. Anything but quiet and reserved, Martyn’s powerhouse vocal delivery, rowdy stage presence, and penchant for effects set him apart from peers in the UK folk scene like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. By early 1975 Martyn was in the midst of a streak of visionary albums that retraced the boundaries between British folk, jazz, and dubbed-out psychedelic ambience, so it seemed natural enough that a live album would be in order.

Live at Leeds finds Martyn barrelling headlong into the uncharted reaches of his own expansive trajectory, flanked by Pentangle’s Danny Thompson on bass and Spontaneous Music Ensemble founder John Stevens on kit. By the time of the recording, Thompson and Martyn were regular stage and studio sparring partners, an idea best encapsulated by the (mercifully) abandoned concept art for Live at Leeds—both players in full boxing regalia, with Johnny boy having just landed a left hook.

The duo’s dynamic and occasionally tempestuous tête-à-tête found no greater outlet than the sprawling take of “Outside In” that opens Live at Leeds. Gentle upright bass and guitar ease in with spectral ambience until, almost out of nowhere, a bass cue sends the trio hurtling deep into the folk-jazz cosmos. With Thompson and Stevens swinging hard behind him, Martyn keeps pace amid cascades of Echoplex from his hot-rodded Martin D28. Over nearly 20 minutes of crackling synergy, the trio floats in free flight between shimmering sonic islands before setting down gracefully into “Solid Air,” Martyn’s tribute-cum-eulogy for his recently departed pal, Nick Drake. It’s a masterful rendering of Martyn’s musical evolution in a single performance, and well worth the price of admission alone. But that’s only the beginning!

With a set pulled entirely from his run of early 70s solo masterpieces (Bless the Weather, Solid Air, and Inside Out), and plenty of potty-mouthed repartee, side two of Live at Leeds finds Martyn in peak form as a picker and vocalist. The breathy impressionism of his vocals dissipates lyrics into gorgeous syllabic vapor on extended versions of “Make No Mistake,” “Bless the Weather,” and “Man in the Station,” before the Echoplex get fired up for a last go-round on Skip James’ “I’d Rather Be The Devil.” 

But Live at Leeds almost never was, because folk artists didn’t really make live albums––at least according to Martyn’s label, Island Records, who deemed the project an ‘unnecessary expense’ and ‘commercially unviable.’ Not really choice phrases when you’re dealing with someone known for their uncompromisingly iconoclastic tendencies. Luckily, Martyn told Island where to stick their unnecessary expenses, and set about independently producing and distributing 10,000 copies of Live at Leeds via mail order from his home––signed and numbered in a humble, bootleg-chic sleeve––all of which promptly sold out. 

Martyn had to be clever with his production though, as the original Leeds show was complicated by the presence of his troubled buddy, Free guitarist Paul Kossof, who was near the end of his life and struggling to play. Rather than include Koss’ regrettably erratic performance, Martyn mixed him out entirely, splicing in a few cuts (including “Outside In”)  from a contemporaneous London gig to save face. Though subsequent reissues of Live at Leeds have sought to reconstruct the actual Leeds show in full, these pale in comparison to the punch and spontaneity of Martyn’s original sleight-of-hand production.

But the role of producer/distributor took its toll on Marytn, who would later reflect, “It was great. Terribly hard work though…I would never do it again.” Exhausted from touring and overseeing all aspects of Live at Leeds, Martyn took a beat for some much needed down time in Jamaica. There, he wasted no time striking up a friendship with none other than Lee Perry, soaking up new sonic inspiration chilling at the Black Ark, ultimately returning to the UK to finish out the decade with two more masterstrokes (1977’s One World and 1980’s Grace and Danger). But that’s a story for another time… 

The moral of this one is: if you want to know what John Martyn was capable of at the height of his powers, the man’s original mix of Live at Leeds sure ain’t a bad place to start. | j annis

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