Martin Barre is the legendary guitarist who graced every Jethro Tull album after the very first, beginning in 1969. He’s been building an increasingly successful solo career for years now, and has a new album this month, appropriately titled Back To Steel. The album is a return to form for Barre, a finely honed collection of guitar-driven blues-rock. Two Tull tracks, “Skating Away” and “Slow Marching Band” are re-imagined – the former highlighting Martin’s intricate melodies on the mandolin backed by his lyrical fat guitar chords. Even better, Martin leads his band through powerful new original tracks, which highlight his unique style of blues and hard-edged rock chops. It’s available in the shop on his official website.
After a few recent dates in the U.K. Barre continues this year’s tour with several gigs in France and Germany, followed by a series of nights on the east coast of the U.S., beginning with a voyage on Cruise To The Edge in November. Check here for dates and tickets.
I had a rare chance to talk to Martin this month about his excellent new album and tour:
Martin, how has your band and approach changed on the new album Back To Steel?
I’ve had my own band for 4 years now, and it’s changed here and there, and developed into the current four-piece band. Occasionally we have backup singers join us. When we go out as a four piece it’s sounding really powerful. I like the space and the dynamics. The new album is pretty well summing up what I’ve been trying to do for four years, writing my own music – a little blues, prog and rock music – its really a statement of where I’m at in the moment and a pointer to where I want to be in the next few years.
The set list for the last tour included covers of Bobby Parker, Beatles, Robert Johnson, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf songs along with Jethro Tull classics. How will the set list differ in your upcoming shows?
The set list is changing as the new album is just coming out. We’ve been playing the new tracks here in the U.K. and they are going down well. It’s a good feeling, because audiences haven’t heard the new album and are coming in cold, and we’re getting a great reaction. I still like doing some Bobby Parker stuff and some Robert Johnson and I enjoy playing them. We have more music to play then we have time to do – if the venue says we have an hour and a half, we are disappointed, as we want to do at least two hours. I struggle with decisions as what not to play rather than the other way around.
We have probably ten Tull tracks, a good selection, that we like to do. When we played in Scotland last weekend, it was the first time with my band. We started playing “To Cry You A Song” and there was a gasp in the audience, not of horror but of anticipation – it was really nice, as they had no idea what was coming. It’s really good fun to play the Tull stuff.
I do have my favorites but I pick things I think will work well with the band and our sound, our current program. I probably have Tull songs I like better, but wouldn’t work with the band. There are some really great songs that are less well known. That’s why I play “Slow Marching Band” for instance on the new album. Back in the day with Tull, I wrote out the playlist for the concerts. But later with Ian’s new vocal range my input diminished. I like arranging set lists with production ideas – everything to do with the band. Now I’m able to do that and have lots of ideas – I’ve got a big catalog to draw from. I’m less interested in a verbatim version of any song – I like to project something new – a different arrangement. On “Sweet Dream” for instance I changed the riff to the downbeat. I like doing that, making it more biased to a guitar quartet.
Where did you find your excellent vocalist Dan Crisp? He sounds just right for this music, with a nice vibrato and strong mid range register.
He’s a little treasure, our Dan. He’s the son of a friend of mine. We became friends, based on our mutual like of music. We did some shows as a three piece in the south of England and it was really good fun. It developed from there. He was so close to home but at first I didn’t see it. I finally suggested bringing him on and it was the start of a really great period in the band. He’s developed into a very strong front man – really come into his own.
We are trying out different things. The original band had six members, including flutes, saxophones, and whistles. It was an intense amount of music put out by the band – really at the end of it I didn’t have enough room, and I really like space in the music – times when there is nothing going on – maybe just one instrument. So I’m taking it down to the basic bones. I tried it live and on the first night it felt ridiculously empty, but by the end second gig it was great – it was exactly what I wanted.
I quite like the idea of adding back the Hammond organ at some point. I want it to be flexible and exciting for the band.
What is your take on the Steven Wilson re-masters of the Jethro Tull albums?
This might shock you, but I haven’t heard anything from these releases. These albums are a reference for me. If I were looking to add “Back Door Angels” to my set list for instance I would probably just listen to that song a couple of times as a reference musically. For most of my life I was with involved in Jethro Tull and I respect it and I owe a lot to it, but its not music that I am playing recreationally. If I were going to see new music on my time off, I’d see Snarky Puppy!
Any update on the tour and your upcoming date with Cruise to the Edge?
I’m really looking forward to Cruise To The Edge – that’s going to be quite fun. We have a series of dates planned on the east coast of the U.S. after the cruise. The plan is to do central and west coast dates in the states next year if all goes to plan.
Catch Martin Barre at one of these upcoming shows – given the mix of new songs, and Tull classics, delivered by his crack new band, they promise to be excellent!
On a personal note:
I’ve had a life long passion for all things Jethro Tull. This superb band, led by Anderson/Barre, released 20ish studio albums over 30 years after forming in the late 1960’s, beginning with This Was in 1969 and ending with J-Tull Dot Com in 1999. These along with a number of collections, live albums, and a Christmas album from 2003 represent one of the great catalogs in rock music history.
One of the first two proper rock albums I ever owned was Tull’s breakthrough record Aqualung. Not only did the album sport amazing vocals, acoustic guitars and flute from Anderson, but also Barre’s searing hard rock riffs dominated most songs. The opening chords alone are instantly recognizable, establishing the album as one of the top classic rock album for the ages.
My interest in Tull reached a fever pitch in 1973 when they released the album A Passion Play, followed by 1974’s Warchild. The musicianship on these records is off the hook. Anderson’s vocals were never better – something he recently called “chamber rock” style – and Barre laid down some of the most complex lead guitar work on record. The tour for A Passion Play was one of Tull’s most theatrical. The show began with an extended “Lifebeats” prelude – a long series of electronic beats like the quickening pulse of a heart, along with films depicting a ballerina rising then later plunging through a mirror. The interlude, “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” was presented with a surrealistic film featuring animal costumes, and a type of maypole dance. Both Anderson and Barre punctuated the intricate music by leaping about the stage demonstrating showmanship and aplomb. During our interview Martin confided that he probably only played the ever-changing piece all the way through without mistake once over the long tour that followed.
In interviews, there has been some distancing from this album, noting the critics were critical, and the band probably went too far. Barre told me there was quite a bit of humor, with many references to the type of silly comedy made popular by Monty Python. But for fans of this artistic piece, the composition is one of their most serious and enduring works, questioning nothing less than the nature of death and the afterlife, of heaven and hell. “Geared toward the exceptional rather than the average” as Gerald would say.
Even though Tull has been retired by Anderson, it’s a pleasure now to be able to go hear Martin playing a combination of his own material and that of his former band, and we are all the better for it.
Back To Steel: A rocking new album from Martin Barre featuring 12 original songs and 2 Tull classic tracks re-worked in Martin’s unique style.
Martin Barre – Guitars
Dan Crisp – Vocals
George Lindsay – Drums
Alan Thomson – Bass
Alex Hart and Elani Andrea – Backing Vocals
Back to Steel
It’s Getting Better
I’m A Bad Man
You And I
Moment Of Madness
Peace And Quiet
Sea Of Vanity
Slow Marching Band