BBC2’s Whispering Bob Harris (country) and Mark Radcliffe (folk) are big fans of Martyn Joseph, and it’s not hard to see why. He ploughs the singer-songwriter furrow and when I last saw him in Belfast some 6 years ago he reminded me of Bruce Cockburn with a little Springsteen in the mix. There are some very obvious English folk roots to a lot of his songs (he’s actually from Wales) but there is also country, alt-country, and a pinch of good old rock and roll thrown in there for good measure. Joseph has around 20-odd studio albums behind him now, and probably about a dozen live albums.
Last time around, it was Belfast’s Real Music Club that brought him over to play the Errigal Inn, this time around we’re in the rather more luscious surroundings of Fitroy Presbyterian Church, again courtesy of The Real Music Club; as a side note Jim Heaney and the Real Music Club seem to specialise in bringing this type of talented but largely unsung performer to Belfast; long may it continue.
The sound In Fitzroy Church is crisp and clear and it’s the Church’s very own Steve Stockman who introduces Joseph tonight. He opens with a gentle mid-tempo number to ease us into the evening, then launches into possibly the biggest-sounding song of the night, “Lonely Like America”. Joseph name-checks Norma Desmond, Travis Bickle and Martin Luther King, and pounds this tune out like there’s no tomorrow, finding time to give us diversions into Springsteen songs like “Dancing in the Dark”, “Thunder Road” and “Born in the USA”.
He follows this with a new song “666“which is a very clear dig at Donald Trump and Trump’s vision of America. There are plenty of religious themes and references in Joseph’s songs, and politics are also well to the fore in songs like “Here Come the Young” which looks at Theresa May’s snap election last year and the role that young voters played in the results.
Joseph’s guitar playing is a mix of techniques; strumming, picking, slapping, tapping and harmonics; on “Thank You” he reminded me so much of Ry Cooder I spent a good half an hour trying to think which Ry Cooder song he had just covered. Except, of course, it wasn’t a cover at all.
Joseph briefly sets his acoustic down and picks up a Telecaster, accompanied by light-hearted shouts of “Judas” from the back of the hall and we get a bass-laden bluesy number. He tells us how he met Tom Robinson while appearing on our very own Kelly Show in 1992 and how they ended up writing some songs together. He then reminisces that one of the songs made number 41 in the charts the same week that Mr Blobby was number 1. The other song they wrote was what he describes as “a real gospel song” about what Jesus did and didn’t say, and that’s what he plays this evening.
“Cardiff Bay” tells a story of children and fatherhood and Joseph jokes that Melody Maker once described him as “someone who made Leonard Cohen sound like Julie Andrews.” Joseph heads into the break with a song about visiting Palestine, but not before he has spent some time telling us about his charitable foundation Let Yourself Trust. The Trust works to fund and inform projects across a range of countries such as Palestine, Guatemala, Uganda and India and he is obviously very passionate about this subject.
After a short break for tea and biscuits (it’s a Presbyterian Church, remember) Joseph starts off with a quiet instrumental which allows the audience time to get back to their seats. We are then taken through a song list which includes the great Paul Robeson, Welsh Miners, Heaven, and all points in between.
“Driving Back to London” is the story of Joseph and his musician daughter swapping songs on their ipods as they drive. There’s a new song “Collateral” which seems to be about love, faith and mystery. On “I’m On My Way” Joseph switches to a beautiful tenor guitar and begins prowling the church aisles and standing up on pews – he is all manic arms and call-and-response with the audience, reminding me of a revivalist preacher in full swing.
“I Searched for You” is a catchy folk/pop song and it keeps the audience singing and we even have time for a brief political diversion courtesy of “Nye – Song for the NHS”. Joseph ends on “Her Name is Rose” which he explains was written for his mother on her 80th birthday and which he dedicates to women everywhere. There’s even time for something funky and political as an encore.
Joseph describes his songwriting as looking for “ideas and manifestoes – colours and palettes” and this comes across in his songs. A rich, varied and entertaining evening, well received.
Recommended for those who like singer/songwriters who bring something a little different to the table, and for those who don’t mind a smattering of religion and politics.