On Sunday, April 2, charismatic Welsh singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph performs in Phoenicia for Flying Cat Music at the Empire State Railway Museum at 70 Lower High Street. The doors open at 7:00 p.m. and music begins at 7:30. Tickets are $20 or $18 with reservations. For information or reservations email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 845-688-9453.
Martyn Joseph is widely admired in the British Isles where he’s had five top-fifty UK hits. In Canada, too, his fame precedes him, and Joseph frequently headlines festival stages throughout the provinces. The Edmonton Journal describes Martyn Joseph as “one of those complete, charismatic singers and storytellers who can take the atmosphere of a performance to an almost cinematic level.” Tom Robinson of BBC 6 Music calls Joseph “One of the most charismatic and electrifying performers in Britain today.” Here in the U.S. Martyn remains less well known, leading Mojo Magazine to call him “Britain’s best kept secret.” But word about Martyn is spreading and his live shows are the reason.
The Boston Globe describes seeing a live Martyn Joseph set as “a profound experience.” A review of a Joseph concert by the British paper The Echo captures why, describing his “powerful, utterly heartfelt songs straight from his soul with nothing of him left behind. That he turns in an excellent show is without question – a one-man protest machine lining up targets and knocking them down with clever wordplay and utterly intoxicating guitartistry.” Jeff Perkins in his Blogcritics column, Eurorock, backs that up with his observation, “There is a fire burning within Martyn Joseph, a passion and a simmering anger that has not dimmed even slightly during a career spanning over twenty years. Martyn Joseph does not just write songs. He pours his heart and soul into them.” The result, according to Britain’s Q Magazine is “a depth, resonance and emotional punch, which belies comparisons.”
In trying to describe Martyn Joseph, more than a few reviewers draw comparisons to an American cultural icon, calling Joseph “the Welsh Bruce Springsteen.” When asked about that, Martyn once told an interviewer, “That makes me feel a little uncomfortable to be honest. I think a reviewer said that once and people have run with it… I guess it’s a useful tag to say he’s a bit like this but it’s a lot of weight to carry.”
None carry that weight so well. Springsteen biographer and noted rock critic Dave Marsh actively encouraged Martyn Joseph to record an album of acoustic covers of some of the Boss’s songs, offering to write the liner notes if the project bore fruit. The result was Tires Rushing by in the Rain released in 2013 to rave reviews. Maverick Magazine said, “Fans of both Joseph and Springsteen should be delighted with this set.” While R2 Magazine commented, “Tires Rushing by in the Rain is the folk album the Boss never made… Joseph’s courage is rewarded precisely because he remakes them in his own image.”
There are three well springs that generate the effect Martyn Joseph has on audiences. As a performer, his guitar work is consistently stunning, ranging from softly lyrical accents on his ballads to rapid explosive chord change strums that drive his most pointed songs home. And Martyn delivers his lyrics with a naked emotional transparency that very few singers can comfortably reveal. Then there are the songs themselves, which vary tremendously in temperament and tempo, but consistently reach for the essence of their content, be that love or anger. BBC Radio 2, (Britain’s most listened to radio network) acknowledged the significance of Joseph’s catalog by featuring Martyn Joseph with the likes of Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson in a series of broadcasts showcasing major UK singer-songwriters.
Ultimately though, it comes down to the person who Martyn Joseph is, the man who stands on the stage. Music isn’t a career for Martyn; so much as it’s a central facet of a life which can’t easily be compartmentalized. Asked in an interview whether he considered himself primarily a musician or an activist, Joseph once replied, “I can’t decide … I guess it’s all part and parcel of the same thing for me.” That comes through strongly in Martyn’s most recent CD, 2015’s Sanctuary; an album that reunited him with three time Grammy winning producer Ben Wisch. FRUK, the webzine of Folk Radio UK, describes Sanctuary as “Both universal and intimate, inspirational and affirming, it’s another superb contribution to Joseph’s art and activism, a safe haven from the bluster and banality that often passes for the music world’s social commentary.”
Combining art and activism is not new for Martyn Joseph. Martyn received an Amnesty International accolade for his work with the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, MST) in 2002. In May 2004, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Joseph released a five-track EP, The Great American Novel. All proceeds went to War Child, a non-governmental organization providing assistance to children in areas experiencing conflict and the aftermath of conflict
2014 saw him take the spirit of his music onto a more practical footing with his launch of “Let Yourself Trust”. It’s a not-for-profit organization that, in the words of its web site, “aims to make a small difference out of great love and commitment by challenging injustice wherever it’s found, educating via advocacy, campaigning for human rights, and raising issues that have been forgotten or ignored via fundraising initiatives, thus bringing about greater awareness for beautiful people in powerless situations.”
As Martyn Joseph later recalled “Somewhere in the heat and dust of a Palestinian refugee camp I decided it was time to set up my own charitable trust to help fund projects at home and abroad that are making a difference in their communities.” In June 2014, he released Kiss The World Beautiful – Songs For The Let Yourself Trust, a special collection of Martyn’s more political and social work, reworked and with the addition of a new song ”Luxury of Despair,” inspired by that 2014 trip to Palestine. All proceeds from its sales went to support Let Yourself Trust, which by now has benefited hand-picked projects in Palestine, Guatemala, Uganda, Canada, and the UK.
Martyn Joseph brings all of that and more to his performance in Phoenicia on Sunday.