In the pantheon of 70s rock guitar gods, Martin Barre does not get a fair shake. As primary axe-man for Jethro Tull, his bluesy and angular hard rock riffs and solos laid the groundwork for all heavy metal to follow, and gave us some of best guitar moments of the decade.
Tull themselves are somewhat underrated. Far from just a progressive rock footnote, they were one of the biggest bands in the early 70s following the release of hard rock classic Aqualung. Their success in America was unique for such a progressive and quintessentially English outfit. Their 1972 prog masterpiece Thick As A Brick topped the US charts, likely the last time we’ll see a longform, 40 minute folk/ rock/ classical/ jazz suite (and veiled piss-take on concept albums) achieve such a feat.
Martin Barre certainly did not disappoint on Sunday night at Freo.Social as he treated punters to close to two hours of choice pickings from the Tull back catalogue, as well as a few solo tunes. With no Ian Anderson in sight, Barre either traded Tull’s trademark flute parts for guitar crunch or omitted them entirely, and in the process made you realise what a great guitar band Jethro Tull were. Immediately noticeable was his decision to highlight some of the band’s earlier blues rock material. as the band opened with a groovy re-work of My Sunday Feeling before diving into a metallic take on Back to the Family, one of Tull’s most underrated tracks and a pleasant surprise to hear live. For a Thousand Mothers was highlighted by a seriously speedy solo, and Nothing Is Easy was re-worked with some excellent dual guitar harmonies.
Barre was not alone in wowing the crowd. His band was tight yet spirited, with vocalist and second guitarist Dan Crisp making a particularly strong impression. His vocals, more staccato and energetic than Ian Anderson’s, splashed a new dash of paint on familiar classics. He also emulated Anderson’s folky timbre well, such as on the band’s powerful run through of highlights from Thick As a Brick. Interestingly the main folk theme wasn’t played, in what must have been a conscious choice to eschew Tull’s more acoustic material. An understandable decision, but a bit of a shame nonetheless to not hear favourites such as Mother Goose or The Witch’s Promise.
The only other regret was the dearth of post-1975 Tull on the setlist. The band released some great material in the late 70s, but only Songs From the Wood and Heavy Horses were featured, while late 80s single Jump Start also made an appearance. It would have been a pleasure to hear a rendition of Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die, if only to hear if Barre had any commentary on the subject matter at this point in his life.
Thankfully, the remaining material does indeed rank as Tull’s best and the band gave it their all. Barre’s guitar playing was consistently excellent, the mark of a musician who has never stopped showing an interest in his craft. He could be both bluesy and raw, as on the almost proto-punk Hymn 43, or tight and agile as on Minstrel in the Gallery and War Child, navigating chugging metallic riffs and turn-on-a-dime rhythms with ease. Aqualung was predictably brilliant, and Cross-Eyed Mary was a guitar lover’s dream as Barre traded flute for guitar trills for the song intro and exchanged some mean licks back and forth with bassist Alan Thomson.
Locomotive Breath was a worthy encore. No piano intro to be heard as Barre dove straight into song’s driving riff. It was emblematic of the night: a no-frills, lean and mean guitar showcase and a final reminder as to why Barre is a living legend.