By Geno Thackara
Walking by the Ardmore Music Hall on Saturday night, a person could have thought there was some loud twenty-something hard rock act getting ready to tear the place up. The drums were slamming, the guitars were amped to 11 and you could almost feel the walls shaking even from outside the door. If your impression of classic rock band Jethro Tull stems only from seeing pictures of a guy with a flute, you probably wouldn’t have drawn any connection to the band we were there to hear. Those who know better, though, have to be aware of what a force Martin Barre’s guitar can be. Even if he was never the one entertaining at center stage, his fretwork was always there to add the right shadings and give everything a good jolt when needed.
With his own band now five years strong, Barre has been adapting some of that material in his own way—heavy, loud and soaked in the blues. You’ll hear no lullaby from this crew. Dan Crisp may not look like anyone’s idea of a blues singer, but his lead voice has enough grit to power things along and he handled the supporting guitar role with flair. Alan Thomson churned out solid rocking bass with the rare smooth jazzy solo, while George Lindsay injected powerful rhythmic life into everything, nevermind that many of the songs were probably older than he is.
Slightly more than half the set came from the Tull catalogue, but if you’ve heard this band on 2014’s Order of Play, you know the likes of “Sweet Dream” or “To Cry You a Song” are much more raw and in-your-face than those classic versions we used to know. Even the folksy “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day” and an airy section of “Thick as a Brick” became grungy rockers. Just to show the other side of the coin, Barre grabbed a mandolin for his arrangement of “Hymn 43” (as featured on his acoustic release Away with Words), turning one of his old band’s more rocking tunes into a stomping folk jig instead.
Barre turns out to be warm and genial when he gets the chance to step up to the mic. He was happy and full of laughs, regaling us about rubbing elbows with British icons before declaring how rubbish England is at so many things compared to the States. “I have to say there are two things we’re better at,” he quickly amended with colorful swearing (which is impossible to deny after all), and the fact that “we had the Beatles and you didn’t.” This served as an intro to the most juiced-up “Eleanor Rigby” I’ve ever heard. If Tull had played like this, they might have very well deserved that hard-rock/metal Grammy once upon a time.
The rest included more covers ranging from B.B. King to Porcupine Tree, mixed with rousing original pieces up to “Misère” and “Back to Steel.” That last was the title track to his most recent solo album of last year, which only shows that he’s not ready to slow down. The crowd may have stayed far too still for most of the night (barring a few bobbing heads here and there), but the band was always a powerhouse, sometimes to the point of hopping up and down like teenagers. There’s no worry about being too old to… well, you know. Martin Barre is still fired up and raising as much steam as ever.