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Martyn Joseph: Chapters From Zion

Last night was a gift. Amidst the usual busyness of life and work and kids’ activities and meetings and appointments, a few friends and I stole away to see Welsh folk singer Martyn Joseph at a tiny house concert in a hamlet outside Medicine Hat, AB. I’d never heard of Martyn Joseph until my friend asked me if I wanted to go a few weeks ago, but since then he’s been getting pretty regular play through the headphones. He did not disappoint.

There were many remarkable things about last night. The venue was called Ye Olde Jar Bar, and was utterly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was basically a garage converted into this wonderfully eclectic and intimate concert room with hardly a square centimetre of space on the walls not covered by notes and posters and flags and miscellaneous paraphernalia. Our hosts generously provided snacks and drinks during “intermission” in the room off the back of the garage, there was an easy relaxed, conversational feel to the evening. It felt like you were listening to an old friend play in someone’s living room with fifty other fortunate souls.

An interesting twist on last night’s performance was that Joseph’s friend and collaborator, Liverpool poet Stewart Henderson (host of BBC 4’s Questions, Questions), joined him on stage for a kind of music/poetry fusion that was really quite beautiful. There were readings and then songs, readings mixed with songs, a question and answer period, and then more songs. Informal, spontaneous, relaxed, creative, delightful.

Probably the best part of the evening, though, was the simple honesty and haunting beauty of Joseph’s music and lyrics. The themes he addresses are profoundly moving. He sings of doubt and hope, beauty and longing, pain and goodness, injustice and redemption. In a world where it is so often the trivial, the lewd, the thoughtless, the shocking and banal that dominate our media and our lives, last night we were simply invited to reflect upon and share in the irreducibly human pursuits of God, meaning, justice, and hope.

After the concert we were milling about the “merchandise area” (i.e., the dining room), and had an opportunity to chat with Martyn for a bit. He was signing our CD’s when he asked each of us what we do for a living. Upon learning that I was a pastor, he paused for a moment, looked at the CD in my hand, and pointed to two songs. “Have a listen to these,” he said, “and see if you can figure them out. I’m not even sure I know what they’re about, and I wrote them! Let me know what you come up with.” He thanked us for coming, gave us each a hug, and we walked out the door reflecting upon a truly wonderful few hours.

So, this morning I put on a pot of coffee, put on my headphones, and turned to the two songs Martyn mentioned. One of them—the one I’m listening to as I write these words—is called “Turn Me Tender” from his 2008 album Evolved. It’s an achingly beautiful song. I have no unique insight into these words. I simply share them here as I conclude this reflection upon a wonderful night:

It’s happened again, the colourless sky
Has dimmed me again and I’ve run out of why.
Hank Williams is grieving, I’m scanning the Psalms,
When Jesus was here, they stilletoed his palms.
And the pledge and the vow is ‘you find if you seek’
But what if you try and find nothing but bleak?
Turn me tender again
Fold me into you
Turn me tender again
And mould me to new
Faith’s lost its promise
I’m standing deep blue
Turn me tender again
Through union with you
Let me lay with you now like that very first time,
I’ve had rooms full of dollars but I’m down to a dime.
For there’s wonder and awe in the mane of a lion,
But there’s nowhere to go tonight and I’m chapters from Zion
Yet you’re still my cryptic and cherishing prayer
With serenity kisses that soothe and repair
And laments have a purpose, laments have a cost
The requiem playing will gather the lost.
But it sometimes tastes sour the sweetness of hope
While the blizzards are raging on this lovers slope.
But I don’t want to freeze here, inside or out
For it’s you that dissolves these cold walls of doubt.

If you’re ever in or around Medicine Hat, AB, you simply must check out Ye Olde Jar Bar for a concert. You won’t be disappointed.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. jschmidty #

    Ryan, you said it all. What a great evening. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to enjoy such a night out. I love how you aptly described Joseph’s music as “simple honesty and haunting beauty”. His lyrics are so challenging and honest I don’t even know where to begin. I guess how you did – by simply letting them speak for themselves. I’ve often spent hours pondering his rich lyrics. So many of his songs resonate with where I’m at, where I want to be or the questions I’m struggling with in life and faith. You said it best – “last night we were simply invited to reflect upon and share in the irreducibly human pursuits of God, meaning, justice, and hope.” A profound experience.

    October 24, 2011

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