If ever there were a blueprint for how to compile and present the perfect retrospective box set, John Martyn's Ain't No Saint is it. These four discs contain all of the artist's best known and best-loved tracks to be sure, but set producer and compiler John Hillarby has gone a few extra miles here. Discs one and two contain the well-known studio gems from John Martyn's classic Island career, as well as choice recordings from his Warner, Sanctuary, and Permanent periods -- the recordings from this last one are well due to be revisited, especially Cooltide and The Apprentice. But rather than rest with that accomplishment, pulling out literally the finest with almost no room for quibbles, Hillarby gives us no less than a dozen completely unreleased studio performances including "In the Evening," a gorgeous cut that was left off Solid Air and would have fit seamlessly with that recording's mood. Some of these cuts are alternates and outtakes; still others have only turned up on shoddy bootlegs, and others nowhere at all.
That all said, it's the latter two discs that really provide the magic. With the exception of seven tracks that were recorded for the BBC, the rest of this material, 19 cuts worth, is previously unissued. Martyn was both awe-inspiring and irritating as a performer. He stubbornly refused to give a damn about what anyone else thought of what he did on a stage, but he could be both charming and tender as well, and these traits were with him to the end of his life. But it was on-stage that Martyn's lifelong pursuit of song became self-evident: with his eyes closed his amazing guitar playing reached for previously unknown cracks and corners in a song he'd written, or in a cover. Check the version of "Bless the Weather" that opens disc three. The first two minutes are a funny story where Martyn endears himself to his audience with a self-deprecating tale of substance abuse and ego crushing before he begins to fingerpick his acoustic guitar, flowing into something like a modal raga style he's followed by bassist Danny Thompson, who bows his instrument in an improvisational interlude that is simply stunning. This track, almost 12 minutes long is, amazingly enough, just a primer for what is to come. Check the rocking electric versions of Skip James' "I'd Rather Be the Devil," or the blindingly great 13-plus-minute version of "Outside In": both are full band workouts. They offer solid proof of what a genius guitarist Martyn was, possessing a blues musician's sense of time and phrasing, a jazzman's knowledge of improvisation and exploration, the historical knowledge and picking tricks of a folk musician, all wrapped in the dynamic sensibility of a rocker. The versions of "Johnny Too Bad," "Hurt in Your Heart," "Fisherman's Dream," and "Sweet Little Mystery" here are almost definitive ones, and the closing versions of "Sunshine's Better" and especially "Over the Hill" offer the view of Martyn as a poet and storyteller, as well as a visionary songwriter, singer, and guitarist. Sonically, this collection -- especially the live material -- is stellar throughout. The liner notes by Hillarby and Daryl Easlea are terrific. They provide critical commentary as well as plenty of biographical information. There are some fine photographs to boot. Ain't No Saint is destined to be a classic and the final jewel in Martyn's crown. This set should make you miss the man and the artist even more. If not, it's time for a blood transfusion.