At first take most people won’t recognize the name Martin Barre. However, it’s more likely than not that the average western citizen has heard his electric guitar intermittently throughout their lives. He is the most prominent guitarist in the history of the legendary Jethro Tull, one of rock music’s most enduring juggernauts, and he shared the spotlight for thirty-four years with the band’s primary persona, Ian Anderson. He was short, hairy, and looked middle-aged and that was back in 1970. He wore a gentleman’s smoking jacket and a monocle. Like the rest of Jethro Tull, visually, he wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll. However, it was his electric guitar that gave Tull its heavy edge while Anderson sang and played a variety of instruments, most notably the flute which he abused maniacally. Like a lead violinist in an orchestra, or a nightingale at the edge of town, Barre knew when to stand out and when to abruptly retreat into the back-ground.
A couple of years ago Anderson informed Barre that he would be going solo (a bit like a wedded octogenarian husband petitioning his life-long wife for divorce). Facing this unforeseen future Barre decided to form his own band and attempt the unthinkable; he would front a band that could tour a number of welcoming markets and play the music of Jethro Tull without its powerful, primary, creative force. And tonight, on a mild mid-December evening on the campus of the Rochester Institute of Technology (R.I.T), about one hundred and fifty souls ran excitedly out of their places of employment in and around Rochester, showered (how times have changed) and drove over to campus in order to welcome their old friend with open arms. Actually, most of the attendees, probably being beyond retirement age, hadn’t needed to run out of work at all; they’d had the whole day to trim their beards, choose their most comfortable shoes and mosey on over to the venue to claim a prime spot in the crowd.
Several years ago, R.I.T agreed to allow a bar to be built on campus, and they named it “Lovin’ Cup”. Like the other buildings in this prominent corner of campus which sits near the main entrance, “Lovin’ Cup” is well built, safe, clean and comes with an abundance of parking spaces. Near-by is a giant, domineering “Barnes & Noble” book-store and some restaurants and cafes. Presumably, countless exorbitant tuition bills have helped to finance this project in order to try to give the students the feeling that they are part of a neighbourhood because we all know that detachment from the real world can lead to serious psychological harm. The “Lovin’ Cup” often has live music. There is a great sound system, an adequately sized stage in one corner, and surrounding the stage is the main area for the crowd where tables and stools and seats are assembled. A long, winding bar surrounds the seating, and access to the bar is easy, from where fine, expensive ales and pub food can be ordered.
I was just shoveling the last few bites of a hamburger into my gob when the band took the stage and to my surprise quickly opened with the obscure but ball-gripping “To Cry You A Song”, from Tull’s third (and my favourite) album “Benefit”. Lead singer Dan Crisp approached the microphone with gusto singing the opening lyrics, “Flying so high!!!….Trying to remember!!!….How many cigarettes did I bring along!!!”. Barre and his three colleagues ducked and weaved and stopped and started at the appropriate breaks and re-starts, and the crowd, with its attention unwavering, was right there with them beat by beat and break by break. Singer Crisp actually sounded like Anderson; not only that but he wobbled his head like him, popped his eye-balls out to the same dangerous extent and punched the air with the same sharp, rising, celebratory fist-clenches. He was beaming from ear to ear at his good fortune; this talented fan had won the jack-pot. Nearby, a couple of 20-somethings mimed the lyrics verbatim and surprised, I felt optimistic about the future.
The “Benefit” album was released back in 1970 and it was Barre’s first full album with the band. He looked ancient then, and tonight, 35 years later at the age of nearly 70, he looks younger, a lot fitter and more athletic; back in the old days he looked disheveled and podgy, Jerry Garcia meets Winnie the Pooh. He wore a colourful Kufi-style hat that sat snugly on his balding pate, white hair tickled his shoulders and a little white goatee beard warmed his chin like a gravity defying egg-cozy. If you met him in the world at large, he could pass for an accountant, a government clerk or an amateur metal detectorist, not an international rock star.
Accompanying Barre and Crisp were a bass player and a laid back drummer; the band’s brief is to re-create the sound of Jethro Tull without the flute or any kind of piano-related instrument, not an easy task. However, Tull started out as a four-piece band and so The Martin Barre Band manages to sound more like the early Tull of ’68 to ’71 than the mini orchestral project that Tull transformed themselves into by the late 70s.
The song “The Minstrel in the Gallery” came next after which Barre grasped the microphone and like an approachable teacher, spoke to us about English colloquialisms, such as explaining the difference between the contradictory terms “bollocks” and “the dog’s bollocks”. The role of the front-man is completely new to him but you wouldn’t have known it although he probably doesn’t face too many unwelcoming crowds. Jethro Tull fans might be a little bit eccentric but they have humility in spades and their concerts have always had that family feel to them. This familiar, friendly and relaxed atmosphere permeated the room, and at the end of his speech, the band launched into a slow version of “Eleanor Rigby”. Employing his characteristic rocky electric guitar, Barre transformed it into sounding like another cool Jethro Tull song.
Apart from one or two of Crisp’s own songs, the band spent the next hour and a half playing many of Tull’s well known hits, such as the rocky “Sweet Dream”, the blues influenced “Song for Jeffrey” and “A New Day Yesterday”, and the earthy, romantic, folk-anchored “Thick as A Brick” and “Fat Man”. On many of these, Barre played the songs’ flute parts successfully on his guitar, a feat that only a guitarist of his undoubted skill could manage. Doing so, the band emphasised the rock component of Tull’s eclectic musical tapestry. There was none of the mid and late 70’s glitz and glamour, no giant drum-kits, glockenspiels, mandolins, violins, and as mentioned before organs, pianos and flutes. Just as in the late 60s and the very early 70s, the basic four piece. Touchingly, after playing the popular “Teacher”, Barre spoke gently about the man he replaced in the band back in 1969, Mick Abrahams, the first victim of Anderson’s long cull of colleagues who didn’t share his exact vision; he’s poorly right now, and I couldn’t help read into (perhaps wrongly) his tribute an affinity with the other rejected guitarist.
Unlike Abrahams, Barre’s seen it all in the music industry, massive world tours, soaring monetary profits, packed stadiums, legions of loyal fans, an encyclopedia’s worth of bizarre stories, and awards in the form of discs made out of every metal that can be mined from the earth. But tonight he looked just as happy, and in the twilight years of an amazing career and with an undisputed aura of energy and commitment, he’s gone full circle, back to playing in front of crowds numbering the hundreds squeezed in tightly together in the crowded bars and clubs, spilling beer over each other, cheering boisterously, and grateful for this perhaps final opportunity to see one of the Tull pioneers.