Concert Preview: Jethro Tull's Martin Barre Time Tripping Into Ridgefield
RIDGEFIELD — I resisted the temptation to make a "Road Less Traveled" joke (riffing on his latest solo album title) when I recently connected with Grammy-winning Jethro Tull guitarist and songwriter Martin Barre, even though he was taking my cell call while on a gas stop somewhere along the New Jersey Turnpike.
traveling with his wife Julie, Barre was winding his way northward on a tour that will bring him and former Tull bandmates Dee Palmer and Clive Bunker to The Ridgefield Playhouse on April 24 for a celebration of "50 Years of Jethro Tull," a two-hour-plus, multi-media extravaganza of classic and prog rock.
Anyone with ears on classic rock radio between around 1970 has undoubtedly heard a few of his trademark guitar licks on tunes like “Aqualung,” “Bungle in the Jungle,” “Locomotive Breath,” “Cross-Eyed Mary,” and many others. He has also enjoyed a fairly prolific solo career, recording a total of eight of his own albums before and after his 42-year tenure with Tull ended in 2012, including his latest Road Less Traveled.
Barre said the period following his departure from Tull was both terrifying and liberating, but the veteran rocker — whose middle name is actually Lancelot — said he knew he couldn't hesitate to jump right back on the musical horse that had unceremoniously thrown him.
"I really discovered a lot of freedom," he replied. "It was interesting because I didn't have a lot of warning or a lot of time, so I really had to think on my feet. But I felt quite determined not to sit back and watch the months go by wondering what to do with myself.
"So I started playing music again straight away. Actually, I had to for my own sanity. And it worked out really good because I was able to do an acoustic album, which was half quiet, melodic Jethro Tull songs that I wrote. It's almost all instrumental and provided me an intense three months of writing and arranging.
"That sort of gave me a kick-start into being busy — writing and playing again and thinking through how I was going to get back on the road again," he continued. "And for that last seven years or so, has been building this live band on the road — the best band you could ever get together. And really playing the music I want to play, especially from the Jethro Tull catalog because certainly in the later days with the band things were getting pretty stale — very stagnant — no forward motion at all musically, creatively.
"So on my own I'm able to do that. That was the release I got from the situation and it turned into a very positive thing," Barre said. "I've got an amazing band and an amazing show on the road and that makes me very happy."
New Songs, Old Guitar
Road Less Traveled is a cornucopia of well-crafted material that never strays far from what you might expect to hear if Jethro Tull and its fiercely independent frontman Ian Anderson had opted to continue working with Barre.
Mentioning an immediate affinity for one particular new number from Road Less Traveled, Barre seemed intrigued that I singled out the moody "For No Man," which he said seemed to resonate with a lot of fans and critics alike.
He chuckled when I suggested the song seemed to end one verse too short.
"That's amazing and makes me quite happy to hear you say that," Barre replied. "That's the one a lot of people pick out to ask me — they all want to know what the lyrics are all about. I'm so pleased you like that one because it's not an in your face type of arrangement, there's a lot of subtleties in it. I really like the mood and atmosphere.
"If there's a message to it, I suppose it's how loyalty, respect, friendship, can take a sideline in today's greedy world. And it reflects how there are bad things emotionally, even in what you may think are the best of relations."
Switching focus from the music to Barre's tools of the trade — a respectable cache of instruments — he talked reverently about a sweet Gibson ES335 that he owned and played early in his career before selling it, and then re-discovering and buying it back years later.
"It's a beautiful instrument and really supplies a slightly different tone and color. I have played [Paul Reed Smith] guitars for a long time, because they will do anything you ask them to do. But I like that there's something a little more quirky about playing a different guitar. Essentially, I don't need it but I love playing it — and I think any instrument you find pleasure in playing, it really is a luxury, isn't it? A bit of cream on the cake.
"I've got quite a few instruments on the road with me, but that one provides such a slightly different sound, I've had to bring a number of other guitars with me on tour," Barre said. "A lot of the early Tull material is played on a '59 [Gibson] Les Paul, so as I was getting ready for this tour last year I thought it would be really nice to have a Les Paul guitar to play those same tunes on. So I brought one on the road and really enjoy playing that."
Learning & Loving Mandolin
Barre was also candid in admitting his initial discomfort when he decided to try and take up the mandolin, which he said he now loves playing and using for songwriting.
"I never really liked it until I sort of got involved in it — it was really quite alien to me," Barre said. "Then I slowly started getting into playing it and it gives you such a different perspective on music in terms of opening other channels and areas. You can't really play it and think like a guitar player. And I quite like that it makes you approach music from a different direction and attitude when you write on it."
As someone who primarily expresses his artistic talents through an instrument, Barre said as his skills at playing and arranging have become much more adept in his solo years, he still struggles when it comes to putting lyrics to paper.
"I'm still a beginner as a songwriter and I really enjoy it although the lyrics I find are a nightmare because I don't have a natural ability to write them. But creating the music is fun — I could write songs forever whether they're good or bad I don't know. I just do what I do, and work hard to make sure it's the best I can do. But those lyrics... I do spend a lot of time.
"I guess what worries me is I don't sing them, I'm writing lyrics that somebody else sort of has to grapple with and shoehorn it into a melody that might not come naturally. That's really the difficult side of it. I think the lyrical writing will improve — I like the fact there's this whole new area that's brand new to me. It's very fresh and an exciting new part of what I do."
Electrifying Concert Repertoire
Tull fans, as well as anyone who enjoys a thoroughly immersive concert experience, will not want to miss his April 24 show in Ridgefield (he is also set to play the intimate Iridium in New York City the following night). His April 20 show at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Mass, revealed a treasure trove of Tull gems.
Barre hit buttons across the Tull landscape, from "Steel Monkey" off the Grammy-winning Crest of a Knave, and 1968's "My Sunday Feeling," to the obscure "Heavy Horses" from Barre's first project with Tull — Stand Up — an energetic "Hunting Girl," and a note-perfect "War Child."
The entire show flowed from tune to tune flawlessly with creatively conceived projections showcasing clips of Barre, Palmer, and Bunker, interlaced with historical touchstones from Jethro Tull's ascent from late '60s blues to the classic rock machine it became in the years leading up to Barre's solo period.
His other musical colleagues Dan Crisp (vocals/guitar), Alan Thompson (bass), and Darby Todd (drums) melded swimmingly with Palmer and Bunker. The show also featured Alex Hart and Becca Langsford, lending added acoustic guitar, percussion, and beautifully woven vocals and harmonies at various points in the set.
Their contributions to "Life's A Long Song" (with tasty keyboard work from Palmer) and "One White Duck," helped infuse those acoustic melodies with new energy. And by the time every member of his ensemble took the stage for "Bungle in The Jungle," their contributions were solidy evident.
Barre's frequent dual guitar interplay with Crisp is also a huge treat and astonishingly good — leaving this reviewer and more than a few audience members not missing the many absent flute passages one bit.
If you saw any of the post-Barre shows from Tull co-founder Anderson's recent past, you owe it to yourself to see the critical ingredient those shows lacked. Having the opportunity to see Barre's take on the Tull catalog was nearly as joyous for the sold out Academy Of Music audience as it appeared to be for him, and it reminded many hard-core fans of the countless and now missing contributions he made to the band.
For tickets to see Martin Barre and "50 Years of Jethro Tull" at The Ridgefield Playhouse ($49.50 or add-on VIP Meet & Greet package for $55 extra), call 203-438-5795 or visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org.
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