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Best Concerts of 2015

BestOf2015_Buddies2Once again my wife Artina and I had a wonderful year of travel and concerts, stoking our love of music and performance. It was another year that saw many acts from the 1970’s and 80’s coming back to town, along with several new bands we’ve followed over the last 25 years. Here is a list of the eleven best shows (one more than 10!) more or less ordered from best to less best, from where we sat:

Steven Wilson, San Francisco & London

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We were privileged to catch Steven on his Hand.Cannot.Erase. tour stop at the Warfield theater in San Francisco, and then again one the second night of his London show at the Royal Albert Hall. Both were spectacular, but the London show was special as Ninet Tayeb was on hand to sing a devastating, beautiful lead vocal for “Routine” and Wilson performed many Porcupine Tree classics including a song I’ve happily not been able to get out of my head “She’smovedon.” Wilson and his concert production team are adept at staging his work live, setting the mood with long dissonant ambient sounds, muted lighting and surrealistic imagery projected on a stunning high definition screen. As with earlier shows in the tour, the lighting techniques were clever and colorful. Sound was crisp and clear, reproduced by the top-notch audio system, which sounded amazing in the acoustic-friendly Royal Albert Hall. Even with all the finery, the primary focus remained on the band members and guest musicians demonstrating their virtuosic skills throughout.

Änglagård, Cruise To The Edge

Anglagard_BandSax_72dpiNot my wife’s favorite, as they can be very angular, but I’m working on her! I find this band from Sweden to be on the forefront of modern progressive rock. Taking cues from King Crimson, and European peers Shylock, SFF, and Ragnarok, this band manages to hit both beautiful and melancholy sounds in perfect harmony, calling in mind things like “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic” while being completely original. Their two sets on the cruise were a rare treat given their infrequent tours. Änglagård incorporated flute and acoustic instruments, putting Anna Holmgren (flute, saxophone, Mellotron, recorder, melodica) at center stage, Tord Lindman on guitar and occasional vocals, and the rest of the talented band all anchored by Johan Brand’s confident leads on Rickenbacker bass. Their live performances are more fluid and accessible than on record, as is true of the best bands.

Martin Barre, Cruise To The Edge
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This long time Jethro Tull guitarist led his crack band of blues-rockers through a roots-oriented show, focusing on new songs from his latest solo album, the excellent return to form Back To Steel. A follow-up morning gig featured more Tull classics including a very condensed version of a Tull epic they called “Thin As A Brick” after which Martin expressed the desire to carry on indefinitely, threatening to play the 1973 opus A Passion Play backwards! On the new album and in concert, vocalist and second guitarist Dan Crisp shines, bringing his own style to the new tracks, and the older Tull songs. Clearly, all members of the band, which included skilled drummer George Lindsay and veteran bassist Alan Thomson were in fine form. Martin looked happy and relaxed, joking that it was the first gig they played on coffee, and announcing, “Thank you for choosing us over porridge…were going to be the best breakfast you ever had!” Truer words…

Gryphon Fly Again

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Gryphon recorded 5 albums from 1971-1977, each with a slightly different contemporary take on traditional English folk music including medieval and Renaissance era sounds, and original compositions, which blended instruments like bassoon, crumhorn, recorders and mandolin, with modern electric bass, guitar, and keyboards. We had the rare opportunity to see their reunion show earlier this year, which was a consistent display of virtuosity from each of the skilled multi-instrumentalists. Drummer Dave Oberle and Brian Gulland occasionally sang in rich bass and baritone voices undiminished by their long absence from the stage. Dave’s work on drums and percussion, along with bass player Jon Davie anchored the songs with rumbling toms, and a thick and varied bottom end. Guitarist Graeme Taylor spent the evening seated with his acoustic guitar front and center, adding shimmering rhythms and leads to the music. Relative newcomer Graham Preskett filled in on all sorts of instruments including the only electronic keyboard, along with guitar, violin and winds. Founder Richard Harvey and Brian led with solo and dueling winds and traditional keyboards, each thrilling the audience with their display of talent. Richard’s lightening fast leads on recorders bring honor to a sometimes-maligned instrument. Brian’s skill on the bassoon is a fun listen – certainly something you won’t often hear elsewhere. And, you haven’t seen anything in progressive folk/rock until you witness two expert crumhorn players duel with rapid-fire counterpoint!

Camel’s Long Journey, Rambin’ Man Festival

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Founding guitarist Andrew Latimer’s shows a rare restraint, like contemporaries Eric Clapton and David Gilmour, wringing powerful emotion from every note, never crowding the measure. On top of this, he sings and plays flute, and these skills were all on display at the summer festival. He traded leads and harmonies with Colin Bass (who makes everything he does look easy, paired with Denis on drums) and shared solos with keyboard wizard Ton, who was in great form. Although this was a great show, the band was rushed offstage, seeming to be surprised at the shorter time they were allotted. Prior nights on this brief tour included a three track set from Dust and Dreams (1991) a keyboard instrumental, and “Long Goodbyes” from Stationary Traveller, (1984), one of our favorites, none of which they were able to play. The rush seemed unnecessary; the stage time allotted to the comparatively pedestrian Scorpions would have fit Camel’s entire set list. It was not an arrangement befitting one of Britain’s most talented musical outfits. Nonetheless Camel packed a punch during their truncated 80 minute set and made the trip to England special for us.

Alan Parsons at Club Nokia

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Alan Parsons and his supremely talented band played the Nokia Club in Los Angeles, performing in town for the first time in 6 years on June 11, 2015. The group was at the absolute top of their game, driving through a set list that included many of their hits recorded over the years as The Alan Parsons Project, and in particular highlighting one of their most popular albums, The Turn Of A Friendly Card (1980). Parsons and his musicians were all in a great spirit, reproducing the sound of the studio records with pinpoint accuracy but also with some improvisation, and room to demonstrate virtuosity. The band on this night were: Alastair Greene (guitar), Dan Tracey (guitar), Guy Erez (bass), Danny Thompson (drums), Tom Brooks (keyboards), Todd Cooper (lead vocals, saxophone, cowbell J), and long time vocalist P.J. Olsson who just nails the delicate, emotive vocals of songs like “Time” and “Old and Wise” –truly wonderful.

Robert Plant’s Still Got It!

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Robert Plant totally rocked the BottleRock festival in Napa California on May 30, 2015. We brought a dozen friends along for our birthday weekend, and went in with mixed expectations – knowing he would do some of his own material and of course some Led Zeppelin classics and generally just hoping to see this rock n’ roll legend perform at his best. From the start we were actually a bit shocked at how incredible the show was. Robert opened with “The Wanton Song” an old Zeppelin classic, performed pretty much as originally recorded. What followed was a mix of his solo work, covers, and Zeppelin songs, including “Black Dog”, “The Lemon Song”, “What Is and What Should Never Be” and others. During Robert’s rendition of “Going To California” a 20 something woman behind me started to cry and I realized what an impact Zeppelin’s music and Robert’s vocal prowess have meant to generations.

Dungen’s Groove

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Swedish band Dungen’s sound has softened a bit over the years since the debut in 2001. Since it’s music that’s hard to describe, it’s best to listen to a few tracks. Check out this video for “Akt Dit” which sports an intro and melody reminiscent of French duo Air. Or for an earlier more challenging psychedelic track try “Högdalstoppen” from the album Skit I Allt (2010). While the majority of songs are more pastoral and melodic, each show has at least one long instrumental “freak out” such as “Högdalstoppen.” Best to salve the dissonance with a typical follow up track such as “Satt Att Se” which sports a nice animated video. As if to confirm the difficulty one has describing their sound, front man Gustav Ejstes explains on their website that the 2010 album Skit I Allt “is about a certain feeling: you’re with your friends and mates, all hanging out till 6 in the morning. You’re the last one left at the party and you call this person that you want to be with. They’re asleep, but they still say, ‘Ah, fuck it, come over.’ It’s that feeling.”

Kansas Carry On…. In Valencia, California

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Kansas is now touring again, populated with the two original members Ehart and Williams and new members that have joined over many years. Original member Dave Hope (bass) left in 1983 and Billy Greer has played bass with the band since then. Robby Steinhardt (violin, vocals) retired almost 10 years ago in 2006 and David Ragsdale has been their violin player since that time, with Greer covering Steinhart’s vocal parts. Principal composer Kerry Livgren (guitars, keys) was in and out of the band until his final departure in 2000, and since then both Williams and Ragsdale cover his guitar parts. After Walsh’s retirement last year, the remaining players hired Ronnie Platt primarily to cover his vocal parts, along with some keys, and David Manion to supply primary keyboard parts and add some background vocals. The good news is, as seen carrying on this year, Kansas is definitely back and ready to roll.

Ty Segall’s Glam and Grind

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Ty Segall is a 27 year old indie rock wunderkind from San Francisco. Ty has released eight studio albums, beginning with 2008’s Ty Segall and continuing thru to 2014’s rocker Manipulator, building a solid fan base over these last seven years. In addition, he has released more than two-dozen singles and EP’s and played on as many albums by other indie bands. We caught up with him at the Great American Music Hall last January. From the first note it was clear that Ty’s punk roots remain strong. Hard core fans populated a mosh pit up front, slowing to rapt attention only during some of the new numbers, and building to a fever on the rest. The performance was energetic and unrelenting, as Ty, dressed in workman’s jump suit attacked both guitar and vocal leads with aplomb, recalling an early, angular Pete Townsend, though channeling less anger, more excitement (he is from California after all).

Blancmange Semi-Detached

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Blancmange recently completed a two-night live stint at The Red Gallery in London. We were fortunate to be over from San Francisco, to catch the first of these on Friday May 15, 2015. Blancmange last made it to my city by the bay way back in the early 1980’s when I felt similarly fortunate to catch a show at the Old Waldorf. There we witnessed Neil Arthur (vocals, haircut, quirky moves), Stephen Luscombe (keyboards) and David Rhodes (guitar, rhythm) play along with a reel to reel tape, backup singers, and a harried drummer who had occasional trouble keeping up with the pace of Stephen’s drum machine. It was a fantastic show – one of my favorite memories of 80’s era “new wave” concerts we attended in and around San Francisco. Blancmange is now primarily the vehicle for singer Neil Arthur and his current day electronic music. Founding partner Stephen Luscombe is said to be ill, unable to join on this album and live shows that follow. For the concert, long time guitarist and collaborator David Rhodes, was present once again. It was a fun show from these talented artists.

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David Gilmour, Heart, Of Montreal, Yes, Marillion, Three Friends, PFM, Moon Safari, Haken, Steeleye Span, Robin Trower, U.K., Mew, Billy Idol, Paula Frazier, Tempest, Midge Ur, Magma, Blue Oyster Cult, Simon Phillips and David Pack were all excellent as well – we feel blessed to have seen more than three dozen incredible artists perform in concert this year.

Honorable mention must go to Madonna, who brought her stage extravaganza to the bay area this year. Her shows are akin to Las Vegas productions, much like veteran diva Cher, complete with hi-def video, large band, dancers, and lots of props and production value. It was a fantastic show – the only pop oriented band of the year, owing to the fact that I am buried in 1970’s history at the moment, finishing a book on that era’s defining rock concerts. From here forward, we have a definite plan to put away the AARP card, and get out to hear more new bands. We are already set to include Beach House, Ra Ra Riot, Muse, and many more.

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I’m also happy to be learning more about how to take concert photos at these shows. Artina does some, and has a great eye, and I’m trying to catch up. Last several shows I’m using the “bridge camera” Lumix FZ-1000 and liking the results. Given I’ve been fortunate to meet some of the greatest photographers of the rock era this year, it’s been an inspiration!  Happy New Year to you and yours….. Doug

CRUISE TO THE EDGE OF TIME

CTTE_Poster_72dpiWhew, I did it again. Year number two taking a cruise out of Miami, something I thought I would never do. Once again the third annual Cruise To The Edge featured Yes along with performances by over 15 old and new progressive rock bands. It was another chance to rock to the jagged beat of prog, pop seasickness pills, collect some new t-shirts, and catch God knows what in the process.

Part of what drives me to these shows is the desire to see some of these artists while they are still gigging. At this point, several bands from the 1970’s continue on with just one or two original members, restocking the ranks with new recruits. While decried in some circles, this continued perseverance still results in some spectacular concerts. I prefer to liken it to the fact that symphonies all over the world still play the music of Bach, long after his death. I’m coming away from the experience with a renewed interest in some older acts, along with a few new bands to add to the collection. By all accounts, cruisers had a good time, and the event was again a success. The following is a summary of all the bands we witnessed over the 5 days, in alphabetical order:

Anglagard

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These Swedish prog-rockers topped the bill for this voyager, featuring their brand of moody, atmospheric tunes that take their cue from early King Crimson while remaining uniquely their own, steeped in the strong musical scene of the Netherlands. At center stage, Anna Holmgren leads or colors the mostly instrumental pieces with warm expressive flute, saxophone, and other wind and percussion instruments, with bursts of Mellotron for good measure. Founding bassist Johan Brand is a focal point, putting muscle into the mix via his Rickenbacker bass guitar and towering stage presence. Founding guitarist Tord Lindman also provided vocals on two tracks. Jonas Engdegard (guitars,) Linus Kase (keyboards) and Erik Hammarstrom (drums) round out the group. The band comes across as a very integrated, tight unit, giving voice to each musician in kind. At times their studio recordings can sound a bit cold and distant – not so when performed live – all the nuance and beauty of the pieces shine, balanced favorably against ample dissonance. I’ll do a whole article on this wonderful band in the coming weeks.

Martin Barre

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This long time Jethro Tull guitarist led his crack band of blues-rockers through a roots-oriented show on Saturday’s pre-cruise concert, focusing on new songs from his latest solo album, the excellent return to form Back To Steel. A follow-up Monday morning gig featured more Tull classics including a very condensed version of a Tull epic they called “Thin As A Brick” after which Martin expressed the desire to carry on indefinitely, threatening to play the 1973 opus A Passion Play backwards! On the new album and in concert, vocalist and second guitarist Dan Crisp shines, bringing his own style to the new tracks, and the older Tull songs. It’s refreshing to hear cuts like “To Cry You A Song” and “Minstrel In The Gallery” interpreted anew and sung once more with passion and punch. Clearly, all members of the band, which included skilled drummer George Lindsay and veteran bassist Alan Thomson were in fine form. Martin looked happy and relaxed, joking that it was the first gig they played on coffee, and announcing, “Thank you for choosing us over porridge…were going to be the best breakfast you ever had!” Truer words…

Caravan

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For one reason or another in the past I’ve never been able to catch this veteran act, one that was at the heart of the Canterbury scene back in the day. Instead, I’ve only seen individual members play live, as they came and went from fellow prog band Camel’s lineup. This was righted last week as Caravan’s founding member Pye Hastings (vocals, guitar) joined long time members Geoffrey Richardson (vocals, flute, violin, spoons) and Jan Schelhaas (keyboards) with Jim Leverton (bass) and Mark Walker (drums) for a set that touched on the band’s work over these last 45 years. The highlights for this fan were “Nine Feet Underground” from In The Land of Grey and Pink and the long song “For Richard” both demonstrating the enduring talent of this long standing group.

Haken

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Haken impressed with the raw power of their performances, at once rough yet often refined, particularly as their long form songs lead them to interludes that feature contrapuntal instrumentals and vocal madrigals. Lead singer Ross Jennings keeps the energy up, showcasing clean vocals and confident stagecraft.

Lifesigns

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This was the first band up on Saturday, the pre-cruise show, followed by a gig on the ship itself. They weren’t my cup of tea, but friends on the cruise reported loving their sets. It might be cause for repeated listening in order to “get it.”

Marillion

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Wisely, this band changed up their set list this year. Singer Steve Hogarth wrings emotional depth from song-stories that cover a variety of themes as he crisscrosses the stage to punctuate their delivery. The talented band hit many highpoints with the title track of their last album Sounds That Can’t Be Made, “Man Of A Thousand Faces” and a song about the vagrancies of fame, accompanied by film clips of departed artists from Marilyn Monroe to Elvis, John Lennon, Jim Morrison and many others who shone brightly but were taken too soon. Encore “The Invisible Man” was a spectacular way to close out the cruise on its final evening.

Moon Safari

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No relations to the French band Air, this Swedish outfit ended up being my wife’s favorite, and it was easy to see why as this young band plays a slightly less angular, and definitely more accessible brand of progressive music than many of their peers. The musical chops are there, with solid bass and drums supporting excellent leads on guitar and synthesizers. But the real strength of this band are their vocals, presented live in energetic performances that find the front line alternating leads and harmonizing beautifully throughout, ending the show with a 5 part a’capella capper that had the audience on their feet.

Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM)

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Another band that brought me back for a second year, Italy’s PFM lit up the poolside stage on two successive days playing a set list heavy on selections from their masterpiece Photos of Ghosts (1973), and other 70’s favorites. Two more recent tracks from their ode to Mozart “Pfm in Classic – Da Mozart a Celebration” rocked discerning attendees. The set list was nearly the same as last year, but the musicians delivered two fun, energetic hours of fresh-baked Italian prog gems. Founding guitarist and vocalist Franco Mussida retired earlier this year, and was replaced for this tour by two excellent musicians, one of whom sings Franco’s vocal parts, and both of whom play acoustic and electric guitars respectively. On Wednesday a bit of bad luck hit, as accomplished drummer, vocalist and band leader Franz Di Cioccio missed the second day’s show due to illness, leaving power-bassist Patrick Djivas to lead the show, which he did with aplomb, though reporting at one point that it was definitely strange to play without Franz.

Saga

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This Canadian ensemble played an evening set on the last day of the cruise, taking the audience through a collection of their upbeat tunes, marked by the hit “On The Loose” finding vocalist Michael Sadler and band in top form.

Three Friends (Minus Two!)

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Last year Three Friends played the complex, thrilling music of Gentle Giant led by two original band members, guitarist Gary Green, and drummer Malcolm Mortimore, down from three after the departure of original master keyboardist Kerry Minnear. The band was a second major reason for me to return to the cruise, and the news that Gary Green suffered a heart attack a few days before the launch was disappointing, though fortunately by all accounts he is recovering swiftly. Instead of cancelling, the band played on, led by Malcolm front and center on drums, joined by vocalist Pierre Valentin, winds and violin player Charlotte Glasson, bassist Jonathan Noyce, and keyboard wizard Neil Angilley. While Gary was clearly missed, their gigs on pre-cruise Saturday and again on the ship demonstrated their chops, and in fact allowed for a bit of additional focus on the keyboard parts, so ably interpreted and augmented by Neil’s talented, percussive playing. The set list was not greatly changed from the last voyage, but a standout track was added from the album Octopus, as “Think of Me With Kindness”, pulled at audience heartstrings with a beautiful vocal rendition from Pierre. Also, the inclusion of “Mobile” from Free Hand, gave Charlotte a chance to step up on violin. The show was great, and all hands on deck wished Gary a quick recovery and a return to the stage, while we enjoyed Three-Friends-Minus-Two!

Yes

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I wasn’t certain what to expect from Yes this time out. Original bassist Chris Squire passed away earlier this year, having named Billy Sherwood his successor for a summer tour headlining with Toto. The tour found the band focusing on some of their more popular songs, and most of that set list remained for this show. It’s somewhat unfortunate, as long-time opener “Siberian Khatru,” and closer “Starship Trooper” were in place once again, as well as “Don’t Kill The Whale,” “Your Move,” “Time and a Word,” “Tempus Fugit” and other familiar choices. Given this a Yes cruise, packed with avid Yes fans, it would make more sense for the band to alter the set, prepare a list of rare cuts and make the event more unique and special. Also the band continues to slow the pace of their pieces for live performance. While ensuring maestro Howe hits every note on the original records, it robs the proceedings of immediacy and leaves drummer Alan White to keep a steady beat that never seems to change during the show.

Having said all that, the performance was otherwise strong, and a new track from Heaven and Earth, along with a couple of rarely played songs made it onto the set list, namely “White Car” from Drama, and the beautiful masterwork “Soon” from Relayer. The latter in particular demonstrated the care and skill brought to bass leads by Billy Sherwood, with runs that defined the track alongside Howe’s slide guitar in equal measure. It reminded me of how unique and wonderful Squire’s playing was, and I rooted for Billy along with the rest of the audience, as he not only did justice to Squire’s legacy both on bass and vocals, but also was able to inject a new energy and a unique personal style to the proceedings. In addition, Jon Davison at this point sounds like Jon Davison, not an echo of Mr. Anderson. It seems this has been true from his second outing on, but we really noticed this time how Davison brings his own personality and voice to the evening, along with his heartfelt, uplifting stagecraft.

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Honorable mention goes out to artists we missed this time out at sea. As always it’s impossible to get to every single band on a cruise that is essentially a moving festival with multiple stages, as there are bound to be scheduling conflicts. This time out we missed Jolly, Thinking Scientists, Spock’s Beard/Neal Morse, and IO Earth to name a few, each of which landed positive reviews from the other cruisers that attended their sets. I didn’t talk to anyone who caught Alan Holdsworth’s sets, so can’t report on that, though rumor was he almost bailed on the cruise before it’s launch.

As to the collection of bands this year, it was a great, if not exceptional lineup for those who have attended in the past. Circumstantially, several acts such as PFM, and Three Friends staged shows that were very similar to last year, and the absence of marquee names to replace Steve Hackett and U.K. was unfortunate. Still, Marillion changed it up quite a bit with a very different set and a performance that continues to draw us into their circle. Plus, Martin Barre, Anglagard and Caravan were all excellent, and the cruise overall must be deemed a success.

No doubt master-of-ceremonies Jon Kirkman has already received countless suggestions as to bands that might be invited next year. It would seem that another headliner is in order, such as Rush or a similar major act that would change things up a bit. I for one would also vote for adding quality jazz-fusion acts, such as Zappa Plays Zappa, Al DiMeola or Simon Phillips for example. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that this year’s fusion axeman Alan Holdsworth drew many attendees. Also prog from North America is under represented, and organizers could include Oblivion Sun (former members of Happy The Man) or even Kansas or Styx, as both bands have staged strong tours this past year. Possibly the Dixie Dregs could be reunited? It’s got to be increasingly hard to assemble enough veteran acts to join the neo-proggers, so hat’s off to Jon and the organizers of this event for delivering the goods!

This was definitely a memorable event, well run, on a well-appointed cruise ship from Norwegian Cruise Lines. The organizers of the Cruise To The Edge floating festival threw a lifeline to old and new progressive rock acts alike.

Martin Barre’s Real Steel

Barre_BTS_CoverMartin 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.

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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.

Barre_FocusedHow do you pick the Tull tunes for this show? Do you still feel that songs like “Aqualung” or “Locomotive Breath” are musts?

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.

Barre_GuitarOn Back To Steel, there are no keyboards or wind instruments – will these be added for the tour?

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!

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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.

Barre_ActionMy 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.

The musicians:

Martin Barre – Guitars
Dan Crisp – Vocals
George Lindsay – Drums
Alan Thomson – Bass
Alex Hart and Elani Andrea – Backing Vocals
Plus guests.

Track List:

Back to Steel
It’s Getting Better
I’m A Bad Man
Skating Away
Chasing Shadows
Hammer
You And I
Moment Of Madness
Calafel
Eleanor Rigby
Peace And Quiet
Sea Of Vanity
Smokestack
Without Me
Slow Marching Band