by Jane Roser
For 43 years, over 60 million albums sold and one Grammy award, guitarist Martin Barre was the heart of renowned rock band Jethro Tull. Barre’s signature solo on 1971’s “Aqualung” was voted by readers of Guitar Player magazine as one of the best guitar solos of all time and was rated one of the 100 Greatest Guitar Solos by Guitar World magazine. He has worked with Paul McCartney and Phil Collins, plus shared the stage with Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and Jimi Hendrix. Now, with the release of his sixth solo album Back to Steel, Barre is returning to the US for his first ever solo tour and will be setting fire to stage at Sellersville Theatre on December 10th.
“I’ve been working hard over the last four years to make [this tour] happen,” says Barre, “so it’s really exciting. We’re really a live band in the way that Tull used to be in the early days- that’s the essence. We capture that raw energy and excitement bands have who are looking back to the sort of shows played in the ’70s, just that sense of an exciting period of time when music was really fun to listen to. There’s a lot of guitar and high energy- it’s rock and blues and it’s powerful. I want people to see and hear the music as if it was just written yesterday.”
Barre and his band, vocalist Dan Crisp, drummer George Lindsay and bassist Alan Thomson will be performing tracks off the new album, as well as some of the well-loved Tull classics audiences (like me who was blown away seeing Jethro Tull live at the Spectrum in the early ’90s and still haven’t recovered from the awesomeness of it all) love and have a lot of nostalgia for.
Barre describes Back to Steel as the most important work in his career as a musician. The album incorporates several of his influences from early blues to classic rock and features 15 tracks, including several original songs, two Tull songs (“Skating Away” and “Slow Marching Band”), The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and a re-working of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightening”.
“I focused more on songwriting [for this album],” Barre explains, “my band’s been together for four years and we play quite a lot of Jethro Tull and some blues standards. Having spent three years getting the band into shape, it was time to start concentrating on the writing side, and I needed a lot more material to perform live. That’s what my intention was- moving away from the instrumentals that I tended to write more in the past and concentrating on writing [more vocal] songs that translate to being played live and were strong musically.”
Dan Crisp performs these lyrics with powerful vocals that pack a wallop and any Tull fan will be pleased by his interpretation and delivery of the Tull classics.
“Dan lives near me in England,” Barre tells me when I ask how they had first met. “I’ve known him for probably ten years now. I got to know him on a casual basis, playing acoustic sets together; then three years ago, the vocalist I was using left to do another project and I started racking my brain thinking of who I could get and the answer was literally staring me in the face because Dan had been there all the time.”
Barre met engineer James Bragg through another project they had worked on and the two got along so well, they kept working together. All of the basic writing, recording and backing tracks are just the two of them. “He works incredibly hard,” says Barre, “ten to twelve hour days and we work at the same pace. I wouldn’t do anything without him now, he’s just so much fun and that’s something I never had in the past-recording and writing and rehearsing- all these things that you didn’t really look forward to and I enjoy all of these so much now. He’s also a good musician with a great ear. We’ll sit there for a couple of hours and I’ll say ‘ah, James, there’s some notes I’m just not happy with’ and he’ll say ‘I know.’”
Having always respected the blues (though not necessarily loving it at first), Barre calls it the building block of all music. “Whether you play country or rock or heavy metal, they’re all rooted in the blues. I played a lot of complex music with Jethro Tull and when I look back at that music, it also has a longevity.”
Barre decided to include the obscure Tull song “Slow Marching Band” from 1982’s The Broadsword and the Beast simply because he just loves it and considers it to be one of the best songs in Tull’s entire catalog. Barre rearranges all of the Tull songs he performs and records to put his own stamp on them so he doesn’t have to always play them note for note as the originals. “There’s no flute and a lot more guitar and I want them heavier and more rocking-more upbeat, but I don’t want to play the same ones forever, so I’m always looking for another song to rework. That was basically the reason [that I also included “Skating Away” on the album].”
“Eleanor Rigby” was another classic song (this time by The Beatles) Barre loved and thought he could do something different with and “make the song a bit more funky. You could never do a Beatles [song] just like the original because people think you’re stupid,” Barre laughs, “and I just wanted to have fun with it and I hope that I’ve done it well. Whenever we play it live, I always announce that ‘I’m going to play a Beatles song now’ and you can hear people groan, so I say ‘well, I’ll see you at the end’ and by the end they’re smiling and applauding. That’s why I think it works- people just like a different take on a very good song.”
With a day off in between their DC and Sellersville shows, Barre says he likes to spend his free time outside playing tennis or running, but says he’ll probably take the band around DC and Philly since most of them have never been to the States before. “So we won’t be bored, I can promise you that. We’re really looking forward to performing in America.”
Martin Barre and his band will be at Sellersville Theatre December 10th, but hurry! Tickets are going fast and you don’t want to miss a living legend, do you?