Wednesday 5th April 2023
The Water Rats, King’s Cross, London
I first encountered Dom Martin at the 100 Club in January 2020, when he played a solo acoustic set of Rory Gallagher songs in support of Band of Friends. On the strength of that performance I bought his 2019 debut album ‘Spain To Italy’ and enjoyed his own songs (four of which had previously been issued in 2018 on an EP length CD titled ‘Easy Way Out’) even more than the cover versions.
When I caught up with him again at the Half Moon in Putney last Autumn, it was nominally an electric trio gig, but Dom played a solo acoustic set as his own support act. Both sets were excellent, but it was the acoustic one, which lingered longer in my memory, so this recent mini-tour of acoustic nights promised to be unmissable. And so it proved; the Water Rats show is already on my personal Gig Of The Year shortlist.
Now, Dom is not only a fine musician, but also a raconteur who could shame many stand up comedians. His humour is dark, though, and informed by his years of living on the streets of Belfast as a drug addict and alcoholic (he is now 8 years “clean” and 2 years “dry”); his view of his life as a comedy, rather than as a tragedy (laughing to keep from crying, as it were) may well be part of the healing process.
His stories, which are interludes between the songs are, in turn happy and sad, funny and shocking, desperate and ultimately life affirming. His music is a triumph over adversity, but, more than that, he is a welcome throwback to an age when we produced songwriters who were poets, storytellers and troubadours (John Martyn and Nick Drake, for example); there aren’t many left (although Steve Harley’s acoustic shows are highly recommended) and they should be treasured.
Dom began the evening by talking about the constant presence of Rory Gallagher’s in his life from a very young age; this started when his father gave him a cassette of two albums (‘Blueprint’ and ‘Live! In Europe’, if memory serves me right) and Rory’s music seems to have been Dom’s closest childhood friend. It was fitting that he chose to open the gig with ‘I Could’ve Had Religion’ (from that 1972 live album) and ‘Railway And Gun’ (from Taste’s ‘On The Boards’, 1970).
After talking of the therapeutic effect of playing music and recommending that all children should be given instruments early in life, Dom shared some harrowing details of his past life as an introduction to the song ‘Easy Way Out’ (from the 2018/2019 releases mentioned earlier). The message was that there is no easy way out from such a lifestyle, but that he’d had to leave behind the few people who he cared about, otherwise he would probably not have survived. Discreet enquiries during the interval about the unfamiliar coda to the song revealed that it was a preview of a new song, which will appear in Dom’s forthcoming album; I agreed not to mention the title, but it’s a Blues close to home.
Dom then recounted how he had managed to live undetected in the attic of an acquaintance for a full month before his hiding place came to light. Frequenting the main living area while his unsuspecting “landlord” was at work, Dom not only kept himself fed and watered, but also took to gradually rearranging his host’s pictures and furniture! Interior design’s loss is clearly music’s gain and the set concluded with ‘Mercy’ (another 2018/2019 song) and a quick romp through ‘Dry Bone Rag’ (from ‘Spain To Italy’), an old Blind Blake song which would have had the punters dancing at the bar, if only there had been any space in the packed room.
After the interval Dom explained that he and his father had both learned the song ‘Cavatina’ from watching “The Deerhunter” (although Stanley Myers’ song had originally been composed as a piano piece, before being rewritten for guitar, and first appeared in the 1970 film “The Walking Stick”, eight years before finding lasting fame); he explained that the film was no more violent for a young boy to see than what was happening outside on the streets of Belfast. At that time Dom was attending school only during the lunch hours for free meals and his teacher attempted to lure him back full time with the offer of free guitar lessons; however, Dom quickly proved himself to be the better player and resumed his life of leisure after teaching his instructor how to play ‘Cavatina’!
Dom presented that song to us in a medley with Leadbelly’s ‘Out On The Western Plain’, which graced many of Rory’s recordings (the earliest, as far as I’m aware, being ‘Against The Grain’, 1975). After a brief discourse about learning how to fight as a 16 year old pub barman, Dom gave us another medley, this time combining John Martyn’s ironically titled fingerbuster, ‘The Easy Blues’ with ‘Banker’s Blues’, which was written by Big Bill Broonzy and had also been recorded by Rory (on ‘Blueprint’, 1973). The following ‘Hell For You’ (from 2019) was dedicated to psychopaths everywhere (Dom joked that there might even be one or two in the audience), especially those he had encountered in his younger days who were extremely violent and apparently devoid of any empathy or conscience.
If working in a pub at 16 years old wasn’t entirely legal, neither was having a 27 year old lover (at least not for her!), and Dom spoke movingly about that relationship and its dissolution, of re-finding and nursing his father for the final years of his life and of then losing himself to substance abuse. These tales introduced the medley of ‘The Rain Came’ and ‘Dealer’ (both from 2019), before Dom paid tribute to the skills of his favourite songwriters; men like John Lennon, John Prine and John Martyn. It was the last named who composed the two songs for the next medley; ‘Discover The Lover’ was new to me (first recorded in 1975 for a BBC session, as far as I can tell), but ‘May You Never’ (from ‘Solid Air’, 1973) is arguably JM’s best known and most beautiful song and one which I could never imagine anyone else singing. Until now.
As an encore Dom played, partly in response to an audience request, ‘The Parting Glass’, a traditional Folk song loved in both Scotland and Ireland and sung at the end of gatherings of family or friends. Then, swapping acoustic guitar for electric, he ended the evening as it had begun, with a blast of Rory; ‘Should’ve Learned My Lesson’ (from ‘Deuce’, 1971) has recently had the 50th anniversary treatment, yet still sounds as fresh as a daisy.
It came as a surprise to realise afterwards that, other than ‘The Parting Glass’, the setlist hadn’t included any songs from Dom’s second studio album ‘A Savage Life’ (2022), but perhaps he views them as more suited to the full band treatment. The band, as Dom Martin’s Savages, recorded a one-off 2020 gig at the Harlington in Fleet for CD release the following year; I hope he will consider giving the same treatment to one of his acoustic shows in the near future.
For now, treat yourself to a Dom Martin CD or gig ticket (the band has a few shows lined up for July and a longer tour in the autumn); you will treasure the memory in future years, if you find yourself listening to him from the upper tier of a much bigger venue!
I Could’ve Had Religion; Railway And Gun; Easy Way Out/new song; Mercy; Dry Bone Rag; Cavatina/Out On The Western Plain; The Easy Blues/Banker’s Blues; Hell For You; The Rain Came/Dealer; Discover The Lover/May You Never; The Parting Glass; Should’ve Learned My Lesson.