First of all, I have to come clean. I’m a big fan of Sarah Jane Morris. I’ve seen her many times live and have all of her albums. I’m also a big fan of John Martyn’s music although the only time I saw him live was when he staggered drunkenly onto the stage at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire to sing with The Band and almost fell off into the audience! Sarah Jane has recently released an album of her interpretation of eleven superb Martyn songs called “Sweet Little Mystery” and to support it, she’s put together a show of the same name directed by comedian/writer Mark Thomas which is on at The Coronet in Notting Hill Gate for just three performances.
More than just a gig but not quite a piece of theatre, Sweet Little Mystery is a hybrid of the two with songs interspersed with chat from Morris and filmed inserts of people who knew Martyn well such as singers Eddie Reader and Linda Thompson, bassist and friend Danny Thompson (no relation) and Martyn’s sister, amongst others.
Morris is superbly accompanied by guitarists Tony Rémy and Tim Cansfield who although separated by the width of the stage, seemed joined at the hip as they showed complete mastery of their instruments – two superb guitar virtuosos at times playing sublimely as one.
Morris has a remarkable rich contralto voice that has a phenomenal range – you can never mistake her voice for anyone else’s. As she says in her introduction, she wasn’t going to recreate what Martyn had already done but she wanted to “own” the songs and make them her own and she certainly achieves that both on the album and in the show. She sings most of the songs from the album and more and the stand-outs were “Solid Air”, “May You Never” and the magnificent “I Don’t Wanna Know About Evil”, a song inspired by a remark from Martyn’s then wife, Beverly and with the chorus sung beautifully by the transfixed audience.
The problem for me was that some of the anecdotes from Martyn’s friends and family reminded me of the stories told by a best man at a wedding about the groom. They were probably very funny at the time for the two people concerned but didn’t have much resonance for the people listening to them years after they occurred. It may seem a bit of a contradiction in terms but there was either too many filmed inserts or not enough! Too many because some of the stories weren’t really relevant (or interesting) and showed Martyn to be at times a very unpleasant man. And not enough as it would have been nice to have learned a little more about this complex, talented singer/songwriter who died far too young as a result of his uncompromising, dissolute lifestyle.
However, apart from that minor gripe, Sarah Jane and her two marvellous accompanists were in great form and did justice to just a small part of Martyn’s work – he released over twenty studio albums as well as a number of live ones. His work deserves to be heard by a larger audience and he is much missed by people who appreciated his music.
Everyone involved in the production should be congratulated and it’s a shame it only has a short run. However, if you missed it, the album of “Sweet Little Mystery” is available at all good record stores (there are still some) and as a digital download.
As Martyn advised so succinctly in a song “May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold. May you never make your bed out in the cold” – a mantra we should all try and live by.
Review by Alan Fitter
British soul, jazz and R&B singer Sarah Jane Morris (The Commundards), with extraordinary guitarists Tony Rémy & Tim Cansfield, pay homage to the music of singer and songwriter John Martyn in a live show directed by legendary comedian and activist Mark Thomas.
This touching tribute to the genius of John Martyn – a restless, often self-destructive artist whose unique voice and music is both breathtakingly bold and achingly tender – also features unreleased footage of Martyn alongside interviews with his family, friends and fellow musicians. The show marks ten years since his untimely death.
At The Coronet Theatre
Tues – Thurs 29 – 31 October at 7.30pm