by Sean Jewell::
As far as anyone can tell Jeffrey Martin has always written songs this good.
“They got a baby on the way, but his wife still feels empty / says it’s hard to feel pretty when you’re always countin’ dimes. He sits up nights in the kitchen in the dark when it’s rainin’ / he can’t sleep for the sound poundin in his mind”.
At a recent show in Seattle Jeffrey Martin is playing cuts from his latest album One Go Around. The venue is lit like a boudoir. He’s alone on stage with a mangled vintage electric hollow bodied guitar. The double humbucker pickups are buzzing his finger work through an ancient Gibson tube amp. Sometime before the set, the laconic artist looked at me and said. “I think I’ll play electric tonight”.
An alchemist, Martin divines a heady realism with just a guitar and his strong, deep voice. His stories are personal reflections he’s picked up along the way. Kids in love, the power of memories to embroider themselves into the mind. Sad living, decrepit towns, and unforgettable feelings are his stock-in-trade.
“Golden Thread” is recalls childhood memories of the wind in your face in the open road. A minimal chord progression slides into elegant finger-picking, the percussion is palms of hands clapping on a lap. The years fly by, through sexual maturity, emotional maturity, into old age. Soon a newborn baby in an old man’s hands conjures the memory of being laid to to sleep to song. Martin sings “write it on my mind with that golden thread / there’s some things you don’t forget”.
“Billy Burroughs” is a song daring enough to take on Beat Poetry’s original old codger, William Burroughs. Not nearly infamous enough for the murder of his own wife, Burroughs shot Joan Vollmer in the head during a game of William Tell. The circumstances that got her in that position involve a fugitive escape to Mexico to avoid a conviction for Burroughs’ possession, of heroin. He was on a bender in Guatemala chasing a lover, and upon his return the drug addled, alcoholic couple had a party where the shooting took place. Burroughs has been quoted as saying this was the catalyst that annealed him to writing –the only absolution for his deranged sins. Martin ponders whether this was the end for Burroughs –a trip further into addiction, leading him around the world in an attempt to escape himself– instead of a beginning.
Martin is sitting behind his guitar, his intimidating frame moderated by the huge sound he’s pulling from his guitar and his sensitivity as a songwriter. The crowd is mesmerized by his presence, his bearded face curls around his lyrics, his eyes squeeze tight as he ventures into the space his songs were written in.
On One Go Around Jefferey Martin has drawn upon his experiences teaching children, fabricating stories that spring from their unrealistic expectations, and fleshing them out into the realest possible outcomes. “Sad Blue Eyes” is about how love cannot cure small town life, but it tries. An electric riff peals before the dream of buying a mobile home on a quarter acre lot reveals itself. “October Dark” is about a reunited mother and daughter, after the Mother has spent fifteen years in penitentiary. Martin sings “How do I say it out loud? The ghosts that have held me down, I’ve tired them out.” It’s as if he cares deeply for each character in his songs. He’s able to describe succinctly the mental and emotional shunt the trauma of prison is on a person. Through his eyes the daughter becomes the mother, for a helpless little girl twice her age.
Two thirds of the way through his set Martin squints into the stage lights, looks back down at the monitor and says about one of his older songs “Build A Home”, “This is a song about loving someone so much you want to build them a house. If you don’t love the one you’re with that much I think you should leave ’em.” His tenderness has scraped the facade a crowd is sometimes able to keep. Everyone’s laugh at his brilliant banter is a direct reflection of their newly raw, emotional state. Some guffaw, others are tentative. Candle light flickers and even the air in the room seems to chuckle.
“Time Away” is a short story about traveling, and the feeling that even the creature comforts of a hotel room stand between you and your lover. “Thrift Store Dress” is about a life on tour. Martin sings “let that old time music burn a hole in my chest, I see you layin in the grass in that thrift store dress”, as Anna Tivel’s unmistakable violin plays. The lyrics have burned a hole in my mind. It’s barely a melody at all, but for months now, whenever I’m alone, it pops into my head.
“What We’re Marching Toward”, and “Hand On A Gun” take on topical songwriting in the way that only Martin can. He’s humorous sometimes about the hell that is politics, but he’s terrifying in his conviction. He peers into the souls of men –rich or poor, and carves them out, then sets a light inside for all of us to see.
There will be many reviews about Martin’s gravitas. His down tempo songwriting, about downtrodden people. If it’s easier to think of it that way you might just enjoy the album once through. When you begin to understand that Martin is writing about you, and me, and everyone he’s seen…well then, you’re starting to understand what his work means.
Martin isn’t just a singer-songwriter working in folk and blues. He’s a storyteller who happens to also be a great guitar player. He’s an artist with x-ray vision, and he reads whole crowds. After the show, through the throngs of people clamoring to thank him for coming to Seattle, to tell them their experience of living with his music he looks at me and says “That’s the first and last time I’ll play an electric set”. He offers no reason. Just one go around, I guess. I don’t know why we got to see it, but like a Jeffrey Martin song, I understand : though bad things have happened in my life, I’ve also been blessed.