John Martyn: 1948-2009

Live music, and other retro matters

Why is live music best; discovering John Martyn; and more

Here’s what I miss the most, by far, while this coronavirus thing goes on and on and on — live music.

Allow me to speak for all of us, out loud, here in this space. There is no music filling the air, and it is leaving a gap in our souls. Without live music, humanity is no more than a big, ungainly, destructive — and self-destructive — ant colony (there, I said it!).

From the big ticket items at Western Financial Place and the Key City Theatre — and there were some great shows coming up — to the Fisher Peak Performing Artists Society’s Summer Sounds concert series (the melodic and rhythmic heart of summertime Cranbrook), to just sitting around our living rooms and kitchens, listening to the people who showed up with guitars — live music has faded from our lives.

Musicians and groups have sought to fill the gap by streaming performances online, though Zoom and other media. This has shown great creativity and these performances can be quite compelling. But it’s just not the same …

Live music is best, like the bumper sticker says. Why is this so?

There are, in fact, recent studies on why live music is better than recorded music. It’s all about the audience.

The heart rates, breathing, and body movements of people enjoying a performance as part of an audience start to synch up, no matter what type of music, an unconscious group process called rhythmic entrainment.

Even sitting in the park or theatre, audience members synch up to the music. And recent studies have shown that people in a state of rhythmic entrainment fall into similar psychological states. This from Frontiers in Psychology: “After adults move in synchrony, even when unaware of their synchronised movements, they remember more about each other, express liking each other more, and show greater levels of trust and cooperation compared to after moving asynchronously.”

This rhythmic entrainment doesn’t occur the same way with recorded music. The music in a live performance “unfolds in a unique and not predetermined way, potentially increasing anticipation and feelings of involvement for the audience. Live music engages listeners to a greater extent than pre-recorded music and that a pre-existing admiration for the performers also leads to higher engagement.”

I’m missing the exciting concerts I bought tickets to this year. I’m missing wandering down to the park to hear the best music our region has to offer. I miss the buskers downtown, and Locals Coffeehouse, my friends on guitars, and even performing in a folk duo. Maybe what I miss most is the rhythmic entrainment. Maybe what I miss most is all of you.

***

I read about a book the other day, and it sounded so compelling that I ordered a copy from the UK. Should be here by October. It’s called “Small Hours: The Long Night Of John Martyn.”

Iain David McGeachy, (1948 – 2009), known professionally as John Martyn, was a British singer-songwriter and guitarist, a key member of the British Folk Rock revival of the 1960s and early ‘70s. His music and songs crossed the lines between Folk, Rock, Jazz and Blues — he is considered to be in a genre of one.

He was one of the first players to run an acoustic guitar through electronics — the Echoplex in particular.

He had a very troubled life and his behaviour could be both destructive and self-destructive, but he is considered enormously influential. One can tell, for example, that Canadian guitar virtuoso Bruce Cockburn listened to a lot of John Martyn.

It occurred to me that I had heard of Martyn, and had understood that he was very influential, but that I had never listened to his music. So I recently checked out some of his albums on the internet, and I’ve been raving about them ever since, especially his albums from the early ‘70s.

It’s pulsing, moody music; unique, beautifully written songs, drawing from any number of roots to become something completely new, that sound as fresh and compelling today as they did almost 50 years ago.

It seems that genius comes in irruptions — a sudden flowering in a certain time or place. Just as Renaissance Italy produced a remarkable group of world-changing artists; Elizabethan England an unusual amount of brilliant playwrights who competed against each other for a ravenous public; or the sudden appearance of Jazz in New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century; so, due to various cultural and historical factors, did Britain in the 1960s produce a remarkable number of acoustic guitar players — Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Richard Thompson, Jimmy Page, et al — who melded Celtic and American traditional music, Blues, Jazz and newer forms into a British folk revival that became a global phenomenon.

Combined with the British reinvention of American Rock and Roll at the same time, the music coming out of Britain at this time helped make the 1960s and early 1970s, arguably, as important an era for the arts as the Renaissance.

Check out John Martyn’s landmark album Solid Air, written for his friend and rival Nick Drake.

***

I was listening to a classic rock album the other week — Who Are You (1977) by the Who. I know it well, but on this occasion, the piano playing on the title track struck me. The Who had no regular keyboard player, and I realized I didn’t know who this guest player was. So I checked the back of the album for personnel: Rod Argent, founder of the Rock band the Zombies, and one of the great Rock keyboard players of all time.

I thought, once again, how the Zombies were scheduled to play Cranbrook’s Key City Theatre in April — cancelled, of course. It would have been a great show, and what a blast to see Rod Argent — I’ll say it again — one of the great Rock keyboard players of all time.

Earlier this year, in February, I had the opportunity, and pleasure of interviewing Zombies founding member and vocalist Colin Blunstone, about the Zombies’ unique sound, that upcoming concert, and their acclaimed album from 1968, Odessey and Oracle. Their Cranbrook concert was cancelled shortly after that interview, and the piece never ran. However, for those who care to read the great things Blunstone had to say, it is running today. You can check it out here.

* Sources: “Frontiers in Psychology”

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