Photo by Gnagflow31, reproduced under Creative Commons license.
On the way to the concert, I drove through a marvelous, blindingly beautiful lightning storm. I kept watching for the next strike, to try to capture the color and intensity in words. I had to give up when a flash and sizzle struck so near me that retinal after-images obscured my sight. (Seriously, I pulled off the road.)
Well, I failed to describe it in words, but that sudden zip of startling brilliance – and the breathlessness it bestows – are exactly how Martin Barre’s guitar solos felt: white-hot, searing, compelling, thrilling. What a rush!
Martin Barre was guitarist with Jethro Tull for decades, and the promotional materials said he would be mixing some Tull material in with his own solo stuff, blues and rock, etc. I didn’t know what to expect and I went alone, drowsy and somewhat reluctant. It would be so much easier to stay home with a book … And I would have traded comfort and laziness for another pinnacle experience.
It was the same venue as the Kip Winger concert a week before, but it couldn’t have been more different. The theater was sold out – I believe they even sold the ushers’ seats and stashed people behind the sound board – and the crowd was loud and engaged. But then, Barre knew how to fire us up. When he came onstage, wearing a weird hat (see photo above) that I first thought was a yarmulke, he fiddled with an amp and picked up a guitar, then put it down and picked up another guitar, then kicked some foot controls. We were quiet for these antics but getting a little restive, when he looked up and said, simply, “NOW I’m ready.” With those three words he got the crowd firmly on his side; and with the music, he owned us.
They started off with an instrumental number from Barre’s first solo album, and I was impressed by the lively bass guitar riffs. I thought I recognized the bassist, Alan Thompson, but I guess not. It was enough to get the blood pumping, and he followed it with two familiar Tull numbers, in quick succession: “Minstrel in the Gallery” and “To Cry You a Song.” I wondered how vocalist Dan Crisp would handle the Tull favorites, and let me tell you, it was remarkable. He didn’t seem to try to imitate Ian Anderson, but neither did I miss Anderson’s style.
After these three numbers, Barre addressed the audience. He told us the name of the first number, which I didn’t catch, and then said, “And the other two are Jethro Tull songs. Of COURSE you know THOSE.” It was maybe a little snide, but also funny. In one of the interviews I read, he said that he and Ian wrote the Tull songs together, and it didn’t matter at the time that Anderson got the writing credit. And I think, now, it really doesn’t matter; but there may still have been some digs in that little remark.
They played two one-hour sets with a long intermission (during which we were encouraged to buy merch from Barre’s wife). Other than the encore, which inevitably was “Locomotive Breath,” they played ten Jethro Tull songs, from albums spanning 1969 to 1974. (Full list here, for those who are playing along.) The one that surprised me was a total reworking of Aqualung’s “Hymn 43.”
Two men in the added seating behind me had been covering off on concerts, Tull, Barre and so on before the concert. I liked them. These are my people, speaking my language. And at this point, as Barre swapped instruments, I heard one of them exclaim, “Ah! Mandolin!” Bassist Thompson also grabbed a mandolin, and Crisp (the vocalist/guitarist) indicated the audience should be clapping in time. The piece started out like something out of Riverdance, and I watched for some Irish dancing, but at about the two-minute mark, Crisp sang,
Our Father high in heaven,
Smile down upon your son,
Who’s busy with his money games,
His women and his guns,
Oh Jesus save me.
TBH, while the mandolin work was fun to listen to, I like the original Tull version – with driving locomotive beat – better. The rhythm’s just better for the lyrics. Crisp seemed to be straining to fit “Jesus save me” on the right beats. Here is a very good recording of it, done Barre-band style. Interesting and fun, and very different from the original – which was undoubtedly the point.
Just before intermission, Barre said they weren’t going to play “Thick as a Brick,” because that song goes on forever and he might need to go to the loo sometime; so instead they would play what they called “Thin as a Brick,” which turned out to be “Sweet Dream.”
Okay, enough about the Tull stuff, which is after all the hook that got me there. What have you done for me lately, Martin? What is your solo career all about?
Maaaaaaan. It’s about the sheer joy of music. It’s so PHYSICAL, what happens when blues meets rock genius. He played a prog-rock version of "Eleanor Rigby." He told us we need a river in this town, and the Mississippi is the best in the world because of the Delta Blues - and he played Robert Johnson's "Crossroads." He played Bobby Parker's "Steal Your Heart Away." Not only did lightning flashes of solo guitar sizzle up my spine; but the driving bass and the off-beat accents controlled me like a marionette. I kept finding myself wiggling my shoulders, head bobbing, hands smacking on thighs, heels pounding … and then I’d realize nobody around me was seat dancing and I’d try to subside. I felt like Snoopy, my spirit breaking free and dancing in wild abandon.