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Ex-Jethro Tull guitarist has raised the bar

Martin Barre, the erstwhile guitarist for Jethro Tull, finds joy in going it alone.
Martin Barre by Martin Webb posed shot

Martin Barre, 2016. Photo by Anne Leighton.

By Lee Zimmerman

For more than 40 years, Martin Barre was considered a superstar. As Ian Anderson’s constant guitar foil in Jethro Tull, he toured the world, played the world’s biggest arenas and played on a steady string of classic albums, all of which ensured rock ‘n’ roll immortality. In the last few years, since Tull’s unceremonious decision to cease operations, he’s reinvented himself in the role of a solo troubadour, narrowing his parameters and playing intimate venues under his own auspices. Although he’s had his own band for three years and, by his count, plays an average of 100 gigs a year, a recent jaunt marked his first series of gigs in the U.S. under his own auspices.

Still, it’s clear from conversation that Barre remains remarkably humble. It sounds strange to hear Barre underplay his impressive resume, given the fact that his guitar riffs, like that on the Tull showstopper “Locomotive Breath,” make for some of the most indelible encounters in all of rock ‘n’ roll. Barre concurs, but quickly points out that even though he and his band — Dan Crisp (vocals), George Lindsay (drums) and Alan Thomson (bass) — cover several Tull tunes in his solo shows, there’s a big difference between his individual efforts and what he did in his former day job. That’s underscored in the six solo albums he’s done to date, the latest being his recent release “Back To Steel,” and contrasts with Ian Anderson’s latest efforts to reimagine significant entries in the Tull catalog.

When Goldmine last spoke to Barre in 2012, the subject of Jethro Tull and its continuing prospects were a dominant part of the discussion. This time around we focused on Barre’s individual ambitions and what his goals are going forward.

GOLDMINE: We haven’t seen you in the States in recent years. Why not?

MARTIN BARRE: It’s very difficult to get over there. I’m an unknown quantity. But through word of mouth and through YouTube, I hope and I guess I have a good reputation. So I’m really happy we’re going to be there and I’m looking forward to it.

GM: An unknown entity? You’re responsible for some of the most memorable riffs in rock history.

MB: When Mick Jagger did a solo tour a few years ago, it was a disaster. Let’s just say far fewer people want to see Mick Jagger than want to see The Rolling Stones. It’s the same thing here. Everyone wants to see Jethro Tull, but when it’s not Jethro Tull, promoters become nervous about what they’re going to get. However, when people see us play, it breaks the ice. I’m not in my normal environment, but I hope people will trust me.

GM: Do you include “Locomotive Breath” in your live shows? That would be a showstopper, no?

MB: I don’t do it because I think it’s the easy way out. I keep that one in reserve. I don’t want to be predictable. I do a lot of cool stuff that I think works really well, a lot of my own stuff, as well as blues standards we’ve worked up on our own. The Tull stuff I play hasn’t been played in a long time — “Minstrel in the Gallery,” “To Cry You a Song,” “A Song for Jeffrey” and “Fat Man.” I’ve sort of reinvented them and given them a fresh spin.

GM: Being a part of Jethro Tull certainly set a high bar, no?

MB: There certainly was a lot of that in the ‘90s when I first started recording solo albums. I recorded an entire album and rejected it because the benchmark was Jethro Tull and it didn’t reach that plateau. It wasn’t good enough. It didn’t compare. Now after six or seven albums, I’m more comfortable. The music I’m doing now doesn’t compare to Jethro Tull or what Ian (Anderson) is doing, so I don’t feel that pressure now. I’m enjoying myself so much the danger is that I might get a bit self-indulgent.

GM: Speaking of which, Tull’s tableau was all over the map, was it not?

back to steel cover by martin barre band

MB: In the beginning we were unpredictable. We could go from rock to folk to that kind of showy extravagance. But in the end it got safe and repetitive. It was a good time to stop, although it wasn’t of my making. It had become stagnant. Everyone who played in Jethro Tull came in with so much enthusiasm and energy, but if you’re restrained from using that energy and giving it to the band – if you’re on a very tight leash – it doesn’t work. I want my musicians to have total freedom. It’s important that it works on an equal basis.

GM: Now that Ian has opted to redo the Tull back catalog under his own brand, and you’re obviously fully immeshed in your solo career, does that leave any possibility for Jethro Tull ever reconvening at any point in the future?

MB: It’s a safety net to say you never know, but in real terms, I’m very happy with my solo career. I’m not looking at money at all. I’d like to play Madison Square Garden and sell it out, but you have to take that out of the equation. I’m talking about the emotion and the music, and I’m in a really good place. I really want to get my music and my arrangements and my ideas across to people. My goal is that people will like it, and that will be my reward. So, I have no reason to change where I am.

GM: Still, the money, the fame, the headlining gigs and the cache of being a superstar – any kind of temptation?

MB: Nostalgia is great, and I certainly respect the reputation of Jethro Tull and everything we achieved. We made lots of money and had great success, but I respect the fans even more, the ones who supported us for those 43 years or so. I think looking back can be negative. I don’t have time for that. So I’m looking forward. I don’t go up to people and say “Hey, you know who I am? You know what I’ve done?” I’d rather say to people, “This is what I’m doing now!” I’ve wiped the slate clean.

GM: We have to ask — what was your take on Jethro Tull winning the Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Band?

MB: We were as surprised as anyone. The sad thing though was that our record company didn’t think we would win and wouldn’t fly us over, so none of us could attend. Even Doane Perry, who was living in L.A. at the time, couldn’t get tickets for the ceremony. So when they announced us as winners, none of us were there to accept. Such a shame. But I’m very proud of my Grammy. I have it sitting on my shelf and I’m looking at it now while we’re speaking.