Fitzroy Church, Belfast
Thursday 16th November 2017
Martyn has been coming to Belfast for 35 years and this show was his favourite. It’s hard to say what made it so special, but it was special.
He’s a seasoned entertainer with a huge back catalogue of sterling material to draw from and an ever-loyal posse of fans. Despite his confessed initial tiredness, he rallied to produce a great gig that left the congregation/audience wanting more.
Starting with the gentle ‘Let Yourself’, we are eased into an evening of song, poetry, activism and a little evangelicalism.
The second song, ‘Lonely like America’, sets down the agenda for much that is to follow. American icons as diverse as Travis Bickle and Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Graceland all get a mention. Joseph is an avowed Springsteen fan and the song morphs into ‘Dancing In The Dark’ before changing again to ‘Born In The USA’ with a mimic of the Boss’ signature call “hey baby”.
Having touched on the changes the States have seen over the years, he then tears into Trump with ‘666’, which leaves no doubt as to where Martyn’s politics lie regarding the US President.
‘He Never Said’, a song co-written with Tom Robinson, takes us into his more religious-flavoured material with a list of advice that Christ didn’t leave us:
He never said ‘God helps those who help themselves’. He never said ‘blessed are the rich’. He never said ‘do unto others before they do it unto you, like they’re gonna do’. He never said ‘it’s too bad buddy. The winner has to take it all’.
At times one thinks he may stray too far down the evangelical route, but he is able to throw in a self-deprecating line about himself, or a beautiful love song like ‘Cardiff Bay’ to his young son, and you’re hooked again.
His love songs are not your traditional boy-girl love songs. Over the course of the evening, he sings moving tributes to his son (the aforementioned ‘Cardiff Bay’), his daughter (‘Driving Back To London), and perhaps most moving of all, to his mother, Rose.
He spoke tenderly of his 80-year-old mother bringing the energy of an 18-year-old to care for her husband, Martyn’s father, as the desperate clutches of dementia steals him from the family. For people affected by this malicious thief of a disease, it was hard to keep a dry eye.
Martyn speaks of the activism, which has become such a part of his life and has led him to found the ‘Let Yourself Trust’. When he speaks of the Palestinian man too busy trying to keep his family alive, and states he has no time for “the luxury of despair”, it’s hard not to be moved by the man’s sincerity and wish to make the world a better place.
This is no mega-rich rock star speaking from the confines of his tax haven. This is a man who visits, sits with, and talks to people who are dispossessed and put upon, and helps to try effect change at a grass-roots level.
After the break and a stiff cuppa of church coffee, Martyn continues intertwining the themes of religion and politics with songs about American singer and activist Paul Robeson (‘Dragon’), an ode to the founder of the NHS (‘Nye’).
Songs of miners without mines and ‘I Searched For You’ during which he walks among and over the pews and prompts the audience to its most congregational responses.
The rack of five guitars on the altar, adorned with a little Welsh flag, are changed continually over the course of the evening. The acoustics of the church are a star tonight in themselves, and not a word or note is missed.
Because he is seen very much as a singer/songwriter, Martyn Joseph’s guitar playing is sometimes overlooked. It shouldn’t be. It’s a blend of picking, strumming, and percussion which accompanies his rich voice to produce something of an intoxicating sound.
It’s an evening full of political statements and religious views of the world. Truth be told it is not a great night out if you are a fan of Theresa May, or want Donald Trump to serve a second term. But for those of us who like their music sweet, melodic, meaningful and with a social commentary, as folk music started out to be, this was a special show.