In the pantheon of rock guitar greats, many familiar names come to mind: Hendrix, Page, Clapton, Santana. For many of us, the name Barre resides on that list as well. Martin Barre was the long-time lead guitarist for blues-turned-progressive rock band Jethro Tull from 1969 through 2012.
His intricate playing, unique style and iconic solos are well known to millions of fans. ParklifeDC had the opportunity to chat with the guitarist in anticipation of the Martin Barre Band’s appearance at Jammin’ Java on Sunday, Oct. 14.
Martin and his band (Dan Crisp: vocals, guitar; Alan Thomson: bass; Darby Todd: drums) have hit the road in support of the new album, Roads Less Travelled, (Cleopatra Records) out on Oct. 12. According to Martin’s website, the tour will extend through June 2019, so naturally I asked him first about life on the road.
“So far, the audiences have been great. We’ve got all the songs from the album and six new Tull songs, in addition to 10 other new songs. All in all, we’ve got about three or four hours of music to draw from,” Martin said. Having said that, however, he expects the setlist will stay fairly constant with each performance. “We’ll change up the set list occasionally, but we generally keep it the same… a sequence of three or four songs that go well together maintains the flow. Sometimes, though, we’ll play a song we haven’t done in awhile.”
Roads Less Travelled, his eighth solo album, represents a departure of sorts from his previous work, relying more on song structure, melody, and lyrics. Martin explained, “I wrote the music, recorded the demos, and worked out the songs before I bought them to the band. Once we got to the studio, I trusted the other musicians to work out the melodies, drums, vocals, and lyrics.”
The album’s personnel are vocalists Dan Crisp, Becca Langsford, and Alex Hart, bassists Alan Thompson and Buster Cottam, and drummers Darby Todd and Aaron Graham, along with percussionist and keyboardist Josiah J. Martin himself, of course, plays mandolin, electric, and acoustic guitar.
Indeed, Martin said, “I used to hate working in the studio, but the nature of recording has changed. Now your studio can be at home, in a country farmhouse, or overlooking a beach. Technology has changed, improved.” He continued, “Once I’ve got the music down, I like being in the same room with the other musicians. I enjoy the collaboration. If the singers have a better idea for a melody or lyric, I tell them to go for it.”
Although the songs on Roads Less Travelled are clearly his musical ideas, Martin’s “nice guy” reputation was evident during our conversation, singling out female vocalists Langsford and Hart for praise, and indeed they bring a sensibility to the album that makes the music unique. Singing backup and lead vocals on three of the new album’s 11 songs, their voices lend a Fairport Convention/Steeleye Span Celtic feel to the record. Sadly, they won’t be appearing on this tour (“they couldn’t get U.S. visas”) but will join the band when it returns to Europe.
The songs themselves are just that; songs. No long, complex compositions like Tull’s “Thick as a Brick” or “A Passion Play.” If I could compare the songs to any other musician’s style it would be the virtuosity and accessibility of Eric Johnson or the Steve Morse Band with vocals.
When asked about his influences, Martin didn’t mention other guitarists but instead named songwriters like Sting, Neil Young, Steve Winwood, and Bob Dylan. Martin places particular emphasis on those little gems of melody, rhythm, and lyrics. “The songs will remain in a hundred years. No one will remember the noodling guitar solos.” Which may seem rather harsh, but he’s right. Even the iconic solo on Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” was not about Martin Barre, rather it perfectly complemented the song itself. And as he said, “I found a melody and nailed it on, I think, the second take.”
Watch Jethro Tull perform “Aqualung,” taken from the DVD “Live At Madison Square Garden 1978,” on YouTube:
Next year, 2019, is the 50th anniversary of Jethro Tull. Martin plans a series of shows dedicated to performing songs from his former band’s extensive catalog. Although Martin will tour with his own band, he said, “I’ll have special guests, former members of Tull, at shows throughout the tour.”
While acknowledging his musical heritage with one of rock’s premier groups, Martin Barre has staked out his own musical territory over the past few years. And it continues to expand. In 2013, he released Away with Words, an acoustic instrumental album pairing Tull compositions with Martin’s own songs. The album works as a way to reconcile his past with a new musical future.
Listen to “Fire at Midnight/From the Ashes” by Martin Barre on YouTube:
You can see Martin Barre’s extraordinary guitar work and hear songs from his extensive catalog and new album this Sunday, Oct. 14th at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Virginia. Buy your tickets online.
Sunday, Oct. 14
Doors @ 6pm