Martin Barre, guitarist of Jethro Tull for more than 40 years, has recorded several solo and collaborative albums. His latest effort, Back to Steel, was released in 2015. I saw Barre and his current touring band at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina on March 24, 2017. The band included Dan Crisp on second guitar and vocals, Alan Thomson on bass and harmonies, and Jonathan Joseph (formerly with Jeff Beck) on drums.
They played two sets that were heavy on Jethro Tull classics in addition to material from Barre’s solo work. Opening with the driving instrumental “Hammer” from Barre’s Back to Steel, his guitar virtuosity was immediately displayed. “Hammer” was followed by two Tull numbers, “To Cry You a Song” from Benefit and “Minstrel in the Gallery” from the eponymously named album. As Barre doesn’t sing, Crisp handled the vocals and made each song his own, capturing the intensity and inflection of Ian Anderson, without coming off as a mimic. Arrangements were appropriately modified to suit the twin guitars, bass and drums format of the band. In that regard, there were several instrumental breaks during which Barre and Crisp sounded much like the famous twin guitars of Wishbone Ash.
Their next selection was the 1961 blues classic by Bobby Parker, “Steal Your Heart Away,” a song the original Moody Blues recorded in 1964 when they started as a R&B band. It’s been covered more recently by the likes of Joe Bonamassa among others. Crisp’s vocals were pure hard rock blues.
After “Steal Your Heart,” Barre stepped to the mic to welcome everyone and to introduce the band before launching into “Back to Steel” from his most recent album. It was followed by “Love Story” from Tull’s Living in the Past collection. Then it was back to Barre’s creative improvisations on the instrumental “After You, After Me” from his third album release, Stage Left.
Another brief interlude found Barre at the mic introducing a Beatles composition, “Eleanor Rigby” which the band performed with a Tull-esque flare quite unlike the original before segueing into “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” rendered as the title implies, heavy. It was followed by two Jethro Tull songs rarely heard in concert. One was “Sweet Dream,” the first Tull single on the Chrysalis label which made #7 on Britain’s Top of the Pops in 1969. Recorded around the time of their Stand Up sessions, it never appeared on an album until Living in the Past was released in 1972. The second was “Sea Lion” from the 1974 War Child album.
The set closed with an extended “end bit” from Tull masterpiece, Thick as a Brick, featuring all the vocal and instrumental frenzy leading up to a subdued finish.
After a twenty-five minute intermission, Barre kicked off their second set with a brilliant cover of Porcupine Tree’s “Blackest Eyes,” a tune only vaguely familiar to me. They dove back into the Tull catalog with well-known favorites “Nothing to Say” and “Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of a New Day).”
On the guitar rack near Barre I’d been spying a mandolin. Barre finally set down his electric guitar and picked it up. Someone in the audience shouted a request for “Fat Man,” a Tull song in which the mandolin is featured prominently. Barre and the band, however, chose a different path. They instead performed a mesmerizing cover of the delta blues classic, “Crossroads,” before segueing into “Martin’s Jig,” Barre’s electrified mandolin and Crisp’s lead guitar and vocals filling the venue with multiple sparkling ear treasures.
For their next song, “Bad Man” from Back to Steel, Alan Thomson handed over his bass guitar to Crisp, then picked up a Fender Stratocaster from the stand behind him and placed a slide on his pinky finger. Thomson played the Strat with reckless abandon in a more rocking version of “Bad Man” than what’s heard on the studio recording. It was followed by a bluesy “Song for Jeffrey” from Tull’s This Was release before returning to the Back to Steel album for Barre’s “Moment of Madness.”
Heading into the big finale, they played three Tull classics in a row with new arrangements that only Barre’s band could pull off successfully: ‘Teacher’ from Benefit, and “Fat Man” (sans mandolin) and “New Day Yesterday,” both from Stand Up. Exiting the stage to a standing ovation, (not much choice as it was a standing room only show), the band returned for an encore, “Locomotive Breath” from Tull’s classic Aqualung album.
Their polish, professionalism and performance left nothing more to be desired. Barre and his band put on more than just a Jethro Tull tribute show, making new arrangements for every song, Tull’s or otherwise, sound fresh and new. Martin Barre rocked it all the way home.