Sunday, 1 December 2013

MARTYN JOSEPH

Live Review

Slade Rooms, Wolverhampton

Martyn Joseph performs like he came out of the womb holding a guitar and at the risk of sounding Zen-like his "piece of wood with steel stretched across it" is almost an extension of his character.

Martyn Joseph
Without any fuss he not only did his own set, but became his own support as the scheduled act had to drop out for personal reasons. 
So if you were lucky enough to get there early you enjoyed a double dose of this articulate and engaging performer.
Joseph walked on stage unannounced and launched straight into his impromptu warm up and apart from the clarity of his playing and insightful lyrics one of the first things you notice is the history in his main guitar.
You can clearly see, even from the back of the dark, cellar-like Slade Rooms, where a great swathe of varnish has been worn away to expose the bare wood of his instrument by the hours and years of strumming.
It kind of gives the impression that were he to go for another 30 years then the sound hole of the guitar will be twice the size it's supposed to be. As he opens his set he has that demeanour of an old style hobo balladeer, in the same vein as Seasick Steve only not as dishevelled, who travels from town to town being a medium not just for his music but for a view on the world that comes from caring about the human condition.
Joseph is not full-in-your-face overtly political but when he does talk about situations we should all be concerned about his honesty and passion make you want to take notice.
The Welsh singer, originally from the coastal town of Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan, still has a clear hint of his Glamorgan roots but is hidden behind a strong US/Canadian accent both in his singing and speaking voice.
Joseph's 30 years of touring and recording gives him a comfortable stage persona where you get the impression no matter where he plays, as long as there is a stage, then it's home from home for him. 
One of his opening songs Beyond Us from Songs for the Coming Home album was a much gutsier sounding version than the recording but set out his stall for his precise and thought provoking lyrics.
It would be unusual to find a Welsh folk singer who didn't include at least one song about mining and Joseph brought out Dic Penderyn (The Ballad of Richard Lewis) which is the story of a miner and activist in the 19th century who was involved in the Merthyr Tydfil unrest and arrested for an alleged assault and eventually hung outside Cardiff Gaol.
Joseph's, on this occasion, coarse voice conveyed the story of these events in the traditional storytelling way which marks some of the best folk songs.
The man in action
His strong voice and precise picking produced a great ballad in All This Time which was given a nice flourish at the end with The Beatles Here Comes the Sun through which he drew in the appreciative audience on the act to become the sum of all the parts. This was one of his songs which had those wonderful meandering musical interludes where he seemed to go into a world of just him and his guitar.
Joseph moved into a bluesier number, Everything Is Grace, which is somewhat of  a favourite with his fans. It had a Dire Straits-style interlude and a big key change which he made a big thing about, apparently it doesn't happen that much with folk musicians.
The late great, Paul Robeson was well known for his social activism especially around workers' and civil rights. What is less well known is he had a particular passion for the plight of the Welsh miners. Joseph's Proud Valley Boy is a tribute to the singer through the eyes of a Welsh pitman.
It's one of those hard political songs which hit you between the eyes and his clear, strong voice did it justice and conveyed the passion which Robeson felt in raging against injustice.
Joseph is a towering figure on stage but his friendly and sometimes irreverent manner shows he is there to have fun and enjoy the show as much as his audience.
Throughout the whole set, and bear in mind he was doing a double turn so his fans got their money's worth, his passion and enthusiasm, and it has to be said a certain spirituality, was evident in every song.
One of the most poignant songs of the set was Clara, again from Songs for the Homecoming. It was another of those straight up, storytelling songs about a black woman who rears a child rejected by his parents before he is wrenched away from her and when on the verge of suicide the song Clara wrote about him comes to his mind and gives him hope again.
Joseph then pulled a rather bizarre stunt with a ukulele on which he played Bruce Springsteen's No Surrender, one of several of The Boss's covers he did on the night. The apprehension about this combination was soon dispelled with Joseph's strong voice over the top of the tiny guitar which he made sound more like a harp and gave it that ethereal quality.
He then threw out a request for the next Springsteen number; The River came back and although his version was a little too nasal it was still a good rendition in a voice so gentle it belies the manly figure that is Joseph.
The singer cultivates this Springsteen connection and could easily be mistaken for a tribute act but this would do the man a disservice as he is so much more than that.
He showed his versatility with his voice and his guitar playing with the gentle ballad Whoever It Was That Brought Me Here and then the more upbeat Feels Like This which had a rant-style rhythm to it before moving into his well known Dolphins Make Me Cry which perhaps more than any on the night showed just how precise and expert his picking is.
Joseph, in classical guitar pose, sang Dancing in the Dark and then Fragile World which was in tribute to the human spirit in general and the Phillipines disaster survivors but there then followed a couple of bizarre episodes during the set which Joseph handled with a certain style.
In lieu of a raffle, which is a hallmark of many folk clubs, Joseph pulled out his version of wheel of fortune with the wheel of "Do We Have To?" which owed more to Vic Reeves Big Night Out's Wheel of Justice than the imported American game show.
Nevertheless he tossed a homemade gaffer tape ball to the audience, the recipient of which then came up on stage, spun the wheel to get a prize, simple in theory. However, it came back with a man who didn't seem to grasp either the concept of the game or that it was just a bit of fun. This all became amusing if a little chaotic.
Great novel and film
Fortunately, it was soon over and Joseph was back on track with a great dustbowl version of Springsteen's The Ghost of Old Tom Joad which is inspired by the central character in the classic book The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. This was followed by another of the Boss's, The Promise, which Joseph sang as a really touching ballad.
Joseph does have a Christian grounding being part of a church youth group in Wales when he was one himself and his spirituality is still evident both in his songs and in his compassionate and non-condemnatory views on the world and its events.
His upbeat blues sound on Not A Good Time for God about the misuse and abuse of religion and the atrocities which are carried out using God's name was a reminder of many of the troubles in the world.This led nicely into Five Sisters which was a heart-rending personal account of incidents in Palestine and Israel and one in particular in 2009 when five sisters were killed in a rocket attack and their father who refused to let the incident be used for political or propagandist ends. Despite the interruption from "Mr spin the wheel" which didn't faze Joseph, he managed to once again convey the passion and biting lyrics which get under your skin and grip your emotions.
This gave way to the gentler ballad of Let Yourself before winding down the set he pulled out a life affirming ballad, Still A Lot of Love Around Here.
Joseph is one of those performers who has several axes to grind but is not a preachy, cynical, ram it down your throat type of performer. He says what he has to say through his music, song, talent and positive personality and before you even know it within a few songs and without even realising it, you get where he's coming from. The lyrics from Springsteen's Thunder Road sum him up perfectly: "Well I got this guitar, and I learned how to make it talk."

Other links:
Paul Robeson
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0732079/

The Phillipines disaster
http://www.dec.org.uk/?utm_source=Google&utm_medium=PPC&utm_term=Philippines%20emergency&utm_content=Charities%20-%20Location%20Generic&utm_campaign=Philippines&gclid=CInymf7Dj7sCFQrpwgod6SoARQ

https://donate.oxfam.org.uk/emergency/philippines?pscid=ps_ggl_Emergencies_Philippines_Generic

https://www.christianaid.org.uk/secure/philippines-typhoon-appeal.aspx?MC_approach=A018704&gclid=CK6ru6DEj7sCFTMftAodEnwAZg&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1