Tribute albums are a strange practice. They are nothing more than a collection of covers recorded by other artists who usually have a heartfelt connection to the song and the artist they cover. But put them together, especially on multi-disc sets, and the compilation of songs usually lose their flavor except, maybe, to dedicated followers of the artist or band covered. Even then, there is likely to be cut ‘n’ paste appreciation of the tracks as not all of them will be the musical interpretations of what the fan might be willing to allow for.
John Martyn is a highly respected artist who, after 40-plus years of recording, generating 20 original albums, and hundreds of songs, has certainly found a loving audience. Martyn began his recording career in 1967 with his debut, London Conversation, and ended it with the posthumous release of his wonderful Heaven and Earth in 2011.
Martyn’s influence is everywhere, as he himself was influenced, not only by those who came before him, but also by the musical styles that surrounded him. Jazz, folk, reggae, and rock were his embraced styles. Although he was never afraid of a musical adventure, he never moved too far away from the styles that formed the foundation of his works.
Johnny Boy Would Love This A Tribute To John Martyn is a collected package of 30 selected Martyn songs as interpreted by a varied group of artists and bands. The mix is a lethal concoction of quite a few unique reinterpretations, some of them good. The artists are drawn from many periods and styles. There is Beck providing a gorgeous, near mirror-perfect rendition of Martyn’s (with Beverly Martyn) “Stormbringer,” camped out near a stunning version of “Small Hours,” an absolutely listenable gem from Robert Smith of The Cure. The original is a haunting song that rises above the mere concept of a song with its beautiful extended intro and otherworldly originality.
The Bombay Bicycle Club does an admirable job with “Fairy Tale Lullaby,” and Snow Patrol does a style-updated version of “May You Never,” entrancing enough to demand a trip to iTunes (or any of your favorite purchase points) to acquire a copy of it for collection. It comes in a little wistful as opposed to the Martyn original but it doesn’t fail to keep your attention. Joe Bonamassa records a heater of a track by putting a little fire into the original song, “The Easy Blues.” (I would have loved to hear early Foghat do this one.) I have a little fondness for the updated “John Wayne” song offered by Oh My God, and I truly dig Brendan Campbell’s adventurous cover of “Anna.”
Overall, Johnny Boy Would Love This A Tribute To John Martyn is a fan album. But break the collection apart, and each of the songs bring a little John Martyn into the life of someone who loves the band that recorded for this album. I love a good cover of a great song. Some of them work, and some transcend the original. All are brave displays of the ultimate respect toward one of our treasures.
There is little doubt as to the importance of John Martyn in the world of rock and roll. His music is unmatched today. Even with a concerted effort to underscore appreciation of John Martyn’s music, Johnny Boy Would Love This A Tribute To John Martyn cannot deliver the depth of Martyn’s work to provide an intense experience. It comes engagingly close at times with some extraordinary efforts. But what the set could do is to bring in new audiences to appreciate Martyn’s legacy through fans of the covering artists. That alone is a beautiful thing.