Review by Paul H Birch and photos by Martin Tierney
The prevailing winter blues and all the ailments it brings resulted in tonight’s show being one rescheduled from a fortnight back. That the venue turned up the heating to ensure warmth is an absolute first in decades of gig attendances, large and small. Tonight’s show is an intimate affair, one man and his guitar, oh, and a lot of stories shared.
Decked out in blue checked shirt unbuttoned to reveal a lighter blue t-shirt, and dark kegs to match coils of unkempt long hair, a rising UK Blues Award winner strolls on stage nonchalantly. He lights two candles, seated on a small plinth column, presumably to add atmosphere, because if they’re incense the aroma doesn’t flow far. Three guitars are stood in a rack formation, a few bottles of beer pitched on the floor, and a while later, seated on a stool Dom Martin leans in to a mic and asks: “How’re you doing?”
Between applying talcum powder to his hands, laid back he relates his recent battles with the dreaded lurgy, pouring what we now learn is alcohol free beer into a plastic pint glass jokes that he hopes “the candles don’t melt it”, and notes that he’s spent the day walking round the city and that there are “Nice people in Birmingham.” With the heads gathered in this room all nodding in agreement with him, I casually accept I’ve entered an alternative reality.
“I love Rory Gallagher,” he says matter-of-factly, relating how his father gave him a tape, each side with a different album on it, little knowing the man was already dead. Regardless, he further notes: “I owe an awful lot about the world and how it navigate it from Rory’s record.” Then, following a swig of beer, he picks up a gorgeous looking semi-acoustic green lacquered guitar with a large copper disc encircling the sound hole, that he’ll play but once tonight, and with a slide affixed to one finger he begins to cover ‘I Could’ve Had Religion’ – The whispery spoken voice now becomes a deep bellowing one in song, the guitar far sweeter, adding percussive elements as he strikes its body, foot pedal effects enhancing the sound. As he lets the slide to fall to floor so he can use all his fingers he begins to play Chicago blues style, distortion becoming a stylistic touch, rocking it up slightly before returning to main song.
“We all have bad days,” he remarks as I’m sitting there more than impressed with what I’ve just heard on a Sunday evening. Picking the dark wooded acoustic that will now be his main instrument, he continues. “I appreciate you know I come from Belfast – The good part I add!” he jokes, before telling us how for too long a time he was a drug user and hung out with the wrong people. “I realised I had to get out.” Waking up one morning, he wrote ‘Easy Way Out’ that he will now play for us, mixed in with a couple of other songs – And that’s one of several joys this evening, with snatches of one song or another being added, some possibly intuitively as he plays.
Chorus echoed arpeggios are picked out and harmonics skimmed each spinning out heavenly in stark contrast to the dark modern gangster tale that unfolds as it veers down the byways of folk, his voice an even deeper timbre than before as I mark qualities similar to the late John Martyn there. Super-fast runs lead into what may well be ‘Belfast Blues’ or at least I heard those words sung, foot tapping he keeps playing, with eyes closed and head bobbing long instrumental passages ensue, baroque blues notes than rough edged one for added effect, followed by percussive chords interjected with left hand trills of delicate pretty notation. It seems to go on an age, and I do not complain.
Between songs he relates how when younger he only went to school for the free meals, and here it begins to seep in, for those us here unaware, just how deep the troubles in Ireland were beyond any religious or political divide, as he reveals ever more of his past. Having watched The Deer Hunter on TV with his father, he learned to play the theme music, ‘Cavatina’ as originally composed by Stanley Myers.
I’m not one to gush, in person or print, but this is wonderful. The music to one side, I mean in being sat so close and watching how both his hands dance about his guitar. Try as I might, to decipher what he’s doing, how some phrase or other might have been created, that others might later fumble pathetically at in the privacy of their own homes, it’s futile for his hands have already moved on and in so doing we might have missed listening to some nuance or other, better to soak it all in.
The chorus is beautiful, a little slower, and I note how Jan Akkerman’s ‘Le Clochard (Bread)’ is a little similar, but Martin has moved on, smiling, he sighs, then a deep yawing growl emitted as, gracefully, the music changes to become ‘Out On The Western Plain’, he having already told us he was going to incorporate another Gallagher number, one that’s generally credited to Leadbelly. It’s fun, uplifting, then fast and furious his left hand runs across the breadth of the guitar playing chords before returning to ‘Cavatina’.
“My dad showered me with music,” he continues to relate. Aside from Gallagher, he mentions John Martyn and I nod knowingly, and, also, he mentions Roy Buchanan, an interesting choice, albeit another tortured soul. “I stayed in my room and listened to ghosts for as long as I could,” and among other anecdotes that this will possibly be the last time he’ll be performing covers, as he’s an album of new music in the offing. However, tonight, Martyn’s ‘The Easy Blues (Jelly Roll Blues/Gentle Blues)’ is the first of such numbers by the man – Immersing his soul in his voice, he sings deep while his talking voice is soft, naturally accented, and higher. As I note here and later, when he plays Martyn’s numbers he is precise in his playing, on the beat, this one is also hard hitting, a tad faster than the studio version, followed by some rag time blues, and some cool blues soloing to boot.
“It’s been lovely day. I’ve really had a lovely day,” he expresses and you trust in his finding peace within himself and acceptance of others. Much of tonight will be talk, stories about his past in Ireland, and also about his reflections on life, which we contemplate at our own leisure.
Hypnotically his hands move across the fretboard and he plays ‘The Rain Came’, that he said he wrote when216 or 17. Bluesy folk with fetching melody structure, there is rocking flamenco, strutting in the chorus, part of it not dissimilar to Gordon Giltrap’s ‘Heartsong’ though a modern spin on Ralph McTell’s ‘Streets Of London is where it might fall spiritually. That the music comes across a little more upbeat than the lyrics, intriguing.
“Playing is therapy for me,” he declares, and with this the circle is being drawn. He has told us hard luck stories from which you’re lucky to escape, and you understand why the blues spoke to him from such an early age. Putting a capo across his guitar, he relates how his much-loved father died when aged only 46. He had taught him many songs, but they also shared drink and drugs. You find solace where you can when life deals you a crap hand from the start. The fact is, Dom Martin may find therapy in music, but this evening sharing stories and song he has been an easy-going therapist to those of us gather here. That he is not some born-again reveller thrusting his sobriety down our throats (Seen too many of them on their hobby horse) but sharing thoughts and experiences from which we can take or leave, while enjoying the music, its own reward.
That he also mentions in passing, “I changed my name” makes me wonder for a moment. Was this so that those villains he knew don’t find him, or just to wipe the slate clean for his own sake of mind? Or could it be, as with other musicians of recent and ancient vintage, the use of an alias and a good back story to boot is a great publicity angle. Seasick Steve wasn’t quite the hobo we believed, John Martyn was born under a different name, and not Scottish, as for Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, that’s another legend. Who knows the real reason, the important thing being, as a troubadour you need to sing for your supper, so those songs can be passed onto the next generation.
Playing to two of his “favourite John Martyn songs” there is bright, optimism in his playing, and when he sings the magic of a yesterday is in the room for me too. From a gently rocking ‘Discover The Lover In Me’ he goes straight into ‘May You Never’ that’s a little bluesy in feel. And that, as they say is that, save for equally long encores that veer off into other numbers.
“I wrote this song for psychopaths” ‘he announces before performing ‘Hell For You’ wherein speedy scales are played throughout chords, then he drives it hard, mixing classical touches with blues licks along the way. The song itself evokes the impression of a doomed romance but that its more about the dregs of society cheating on each other, somewhat chilling. There is a kaleidoscope of colour to his playing before bringing it to an end.
Picking up an electric Telecaster, he tells how on tour with Eric Gales a fan offered to build him a guitar, as a gift, touched and appreciative, this is it, a guitar like Gallagher might have played had he not chosen a Strat.
My unfamiliarity means more tunes were played tonight than I can give name to, including this final number, albeit I should as an audience member requested it. It begins with a stylised solo, speedy fingering, sustain and squeals held in check preface a sultry sensual blues heartbreak ballad. There are many a guitar filigree, vary-paced, some jazzy chords and deeper blues in the mix. I turn my head and on my casting it back, Martin appears to put something on his lap. Was it a plectrum? If so, I’d not noticed him using it a moment earlier, and certainly never when playing acoustics. Something for the guitar fiends to fret about, as applying his right-handed fingers to the string he continues to pull out more blues variations without tonal difference. It’s enjoyable, but the truth is his acoustic numbers have shone so brightly this evening.
Dom Martin might just be that something special we need. Live, you become endeared to the person and will allow time to give the music a listen. Similarly, if the music draws you in, the man behind it often has something equally deserving to say worth hearing. Either way, I’m all for such musical therapy.