On Thursday, November 2, guitarist Martin Barre brings his current tour A Brief History of Tull, to the Florida Theatre.
Barre has arguably come full circle. The longtime Jethro Tull guitarist was born in Birmingham, U.K., a working-class town that also produced other formidable ‘60s musicians who went on to form The Move, Traffic and Black Sabbath. Influenced by jazz and blues, as a young player Barre gigged around England, and in 1968 hooked up with Tull.
He made his Tull debut with the album Stand Up (1969), ramping up the group’s volume and intensity with a nuanced ferocity that still holds up today as protean metal. In total, Barre, who was with the band until 2011, appeared on more than two-dozen studio and live albums. His guitar phrasing, tone and melodic contributions were the perfect foil for Tull vocalist-flutist Ian Anderson’s dervish-like stage presence, helping shape and guide Tull’s iconoclastic mix of jazz, blues, English Isles-tinged folk and neoclassical excursions.
The Grammy-winning group went on to sell 60 million albums, including 11 gold and five platinum sellers, on the strengths of rock classics “Aqualung,” “Locomotive Breath” and the prog-rock suite, Thick as a Brick. Musicians as diverse as Nick Cave, Geddy Lee and Steve Harris of Iron Maiden remain vocal fans of the band.
Now at age 76, Barre is touring with A Brief History of Tull, where he and his band (vocalist Dan Crisp, bass guitarist Alan Thomson and drummer Terl Bryant) run through 50 years of Tull’s music.
The Jacksonville Music Experience spoke with Barre from his home in England where he shared his take on the mighty Tull.
So what was the impetus for the A Brief History of Tull tour?
It’s sort of a summary, really. I’ve been doing a lot of Tull-themed tours over the last five or six years, and that sort of kick started it, because it was the 50th anniversary of Tull. And nobody was doing anything at all, there was no get-together, no record company celebration, etc. Nothing was happening and I thought that was a real shame and it’s a big privilege to have been around 50 years. So I sort of stepped in at the deep end and decided to actually do something special.
“The music sort of carries you along. And as long as it’s good music, it won’t owe you anything. It will speak.”
So I re-recorded a load of tracks for a double CD especially for that [anniversary]. We’re playing songs that meant a lot to me over 50 years and they’re very special for me—and just not the obvious songs, not the predictable ones, not the big hits, but just sort of what you might call deep cuts: tracks that are really worth playing and sound great live.
“Aqualung” is surely the band’s most famous track, and for its day, in both lyrics and that diminished-chord riff and progression, it’s a fairly dark tune. Did the band even consider that it might be such a radio hit?
I don’t think so. Because it doesn’t have the format of a hit record: it stops and starts, it and goes all over the place. It’s not formatted to be a hit. It’s the opposite. It’s a piece of music with stops, starts, lows; it has highs, it is loud, (laughs) and is then quiet. “Radio-friendly” was the word in those days, and I thought if anything would be a hit it would be “Hymn 43” or “Cross-Eyed Mary”: things that had continuity. But we’re not a normal band. We were different. We were left of center and our own pathway. So yeah, “Aqualung” was so out on a limb, lyrically, musically, and arrangement-wise yet people liked it? Amazing.
How do you stay invigorated performing these songs live? The compositions are pretty malleable but how do you maintain your enthusiasm and not feel like you’re punching the clock?
Well, I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been in the position where I thought I was punching a clock. (Laughs) So, I’m being a smartass and I’ll say, “I don’t know the answer.” But I do know that if there’s a song I don’t want to play, I’ll give it a rest. Because I don’t have to play anything. I’m representing Jethro Tull but I’m not Jethro Tull. Nobody’s Jethro Tull anymore. It was an entity that’s finished and there is sort of remnants. But really, you know that I think people come and see my band, and they really don’t know what they’re gonna get. So with that in mind, it’s okay. You know what? I don’t play “Aqualung.” That’s fine. I’ve never heard one person go [gruffly] “Play Aqualung!” (Laughs). I’ve played it a lot. It doesn’t matter. I could play it tomorrow, and I’d enjoy it. So I don’t really get fed up with playing it. You don’t because you get so involved with it. The music sort of carries you along. And as long as it’s good music, it won’t owe you anything. It will speak.
You’re very fluent as both an acoustic and electric guitarist. But I think contrary to many of your peers who have mellowed out and decided to play primarily acoustic, it seems like you are going full-Freddie King and actually getting louder and edgier with your playing.
Yeah, I know what you mean. I have, because I wasn’t good enough. My Freddie King was rubbish. (Laughs). I was so bad, I left it alone. I just thought you know, leave it to Freddie because he does it better than anybody in the world. But you know I love controlling the guitar and I don’t use pedals. I just play quieter, or play louder on the electric. Same on acoustic: all those nuances that are there in the instrument, if you find them and use them. And I love it. You dig deeper, you get a different sound you back off and play lighter. It’s like any instrument in that there’s so much control that you have. It’s just that there’s a lot of subtlety there.
Martin Barre’s A Brief History of Tull is featured at 8 p.m. November 2 at the Florida Theatre. For more info and to purchase tickets, click here.