The Phoenix and the Turtle by Beverley Martyn

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It’s almost fifteen years since Beverley Martyn put out her last album but this album is so good I’m inclined to scratch my chin and think that “yeah, it’s been worth the wait”. In many ways this is an old fashioned album in that it’s short (around 35 minutes), it’s bluesy with folk stylings and contains real living songs with beautiful clear production values. It even (almost) features two icons from those halcyon days – John Martyn and Nick Drake. Let me explain….

This spell binding album kicks off with the forlorn “Reckless Jane” the sad story of a free spirited woman during the Second World War who ‘had six kids by five different dads/two sweet girls and four lads’ and, of course, loved em all and would ‘do it all again’ Despite the problems they wrought for her. The song was begun thirty odd years ago by Beverly and the almost mythical Nick Drake who died before they completed it. Martyn was so distressed by his death that she left it unfinished until now. I’m happy that she finally went back to it because it’s a perfect opener and sets the scene for what follows. Later we get ‘Women and Malt Whiskey’ that seems like a thinly veiled ditty about her more famous deceased ex-husband folky jazzer-rock-fusion stalwart John Martyn. It comes across as a very affectionate but revealing portrait as Martyn sings ‘Women and Malt Whiskey they’re gonna lead you to your grave’. Sadly that’s exactly what happened to John as he died back in 2009 after having lost a leg,most of his career and his wife due to his love of the demon drink. She reveals that ‘Davey was your hero and Bobby was mine’ referring (I guess) to the great folk guitarist Davey Graham and of course “Bobby” Dylan (I do know that Beverly is a huge Dylan fan). She even borrows a couple of Dylan’s lines and a few of Roy Harper’s words in the chorus “Farewell Angeline now I must leave/if I don’t be there by morning/honey don’t you grieve”. It’s a touching tribute to her former beau and the music they both loved.

The real standout here though is Martyn’s re-interpretation of the classic blues tour-de-force “When the Levee Breaks”. The songs origins are lost somewhere along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River but echo across time through Robert Johnson’s plaintive wailing version from the 1930’s to Led Zeppelin’s storming version that concludes their classic fourth album back in the 70’s. More recently Bob Dylan appropriated it and audaciously claimed the copyright on his “Modern Times” album where he also borrowed Muddy Waters tunes and the words of poet Henry Timrod. Martyn’s version of the song, with a cropped title of ‘Levee Breaks’ is absolutely superb though as her husky soulful voice, almost unrecognisable from her folky days, pulls us right into the heart of the song and gives it a real contemporary feel that resonates up from the Delta across to the floods in the West Country this year. The stirring guitar playing will give you goose bumps as the tragic tale spins out over the song. Superlative stuff.

Elsewhere we have ‘Potter’s Blues’ which, from the title, sounds like it might be an unsavoury film about J.K Rowling’s eponymous hero but is actually a rather stirring song about playwright Dennis Potter and comes over like an ode to strength and realism in a world of falsity. ‘Sweet Joy’ is a gorgeous love song that has a timeless quality that will tug relentlessly at your heart strings.

Throughout the album the stripped down bluesy sound has a real clarity and the sharp but punchy production by her manager, Mark Parvey, leaves me thinking that the warmth of this record will keep me listening for a long time to come. There’s some fine acoustic guitar across the album with splashes of steamy organ playing and some beautifully understated string arrangements especially in ‘I’m Going To Germany’ . Guitarist Michael Watts deserves a special mention for his superb playing throughout the album which has a swampy echoey tone that at times comes across like Duane Eddie but at other times has the finesse and fire of people like a young Eric Clapton and the brilliant Peter Green.

This is a fine reassertion of a rare and wonderful talent and I’m hoping that there will be some live dates coming up soon. Now, go out and buy this record (released on 21st April), you won’t regret it.

Reviewer: Greg Johnson

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