“I just want to be a good musician, I want to be a good songwriter, I want to get better.”
Refreshing words coming from a musician who’s been at the top of his game for over 50 years. Martin Barre is well-known as the long-time lead guitarist (1969-2012) for Jethro Tull. I spoke with Martin in anticipation of his “Martin Barre Celebrates 50 Years of Jethro Tull Tour,” which will come to the DC Metro area for two shows on April 22 at The Birchmere and April 23 at Rams Head on Stage. (This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.)
Martin’s intricate playing, unique style, and iconic solos are well known to millions of fans. Since leaving Tull (more on that later) in 2012, Martin has released four studio albums and toured the U.S and Europe regularly.
Born in Birmingham, England, Martin moved to London in 1966, when he and his friend Chris Rodger auditioned for a band called “The Noblemen” that was looking saxophonists. Martin, although a flute player, learned tenor sax in two days, bluffed his way through the audition and joined the band. After changing its name to “The Motivation,” the band started backing soul artists such as the Coasters, the Drifters, and Lee Dorsey. With another name change to “The Penny Peeps,” it evolved into a blues rock band, now with Martin on lead guitar. After another name change in mid-1968 to “Gethsemane,” the band began touring throughout England with Martin on guitar and flute.
That same year, Gethsemane and Jethro Tull both played a blues club in Plymouth, where Martin and (Jethro Tull founder) Ian Anderson first met. A few months later, as Gethsemane was about to call it quits due to lack of financial success, Tull manager Terry Ellis invited Martin to audition for Jethro Tull. After learning material that would eventually become Tull’s second LP, Stand Up, Martin assumed lead guitar duties and embarked on a singular and highly successful career.
Fifty years later, Martin’s reprising material from what many consider Jethro Tull’s golden age: 1970 through 1987’s Crest of a Knave (which won a Grammy in 1989). The tour is celebrating Tull’s entire career, but Martin said, “It’s more weighted toward the early days because we have Clive Bunker with us, and I want to feature Clive on as much stuff as possible, the Stand Up, Benefit, Aqualung material and then Dee Palmer gets to play the Heavy Horses, Songs From the Woods, and [the song] Hunting Girl which obviously features a lot of keyboards. We’ve got the girl singers for the string parts on the acoustic songs. It works out really well.”
See the Martin Barre Band performing “Hunting Girl” on YouTube:
The current tour started on April 12 and promises to be an exhaustive, and expansive, take on Jethro Tull’s legacy.
“Yeah, it’s the first big production I’ve taken on. It’s a huge amount of gear, two drum kits, eight musicians, video screens… it’s enormous. It’s exciting. It’s probably a 2 ½ hour plus show, it could be a 4-hour show! But it’s not,” said Martin chuckling. “Too little is really bad and too much is the next thing down, you want to leave people wanting a little bit more, but not very much more.”
The tour will extend through the summer in Europe, where Martin mentioned that he’ll play some festival gigs before taking a six-month break. “We’ve really done a lot of US tours in the last couple of years and we’re coming back in April of next year, which isn’t that far off! But, yeah, we’re just going to take a breath because it’s been really, really hard work putting the show together,” he confessed.
Speaking of gear, I was struck by Martin’s insistence on maintaining his own equipment, rather than using a guitar tech. His website features the Paul Reed Smith (PRS) guitars that Martin uses primarily, but he told me his arsenal will include a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Strat, as well as an acoustic and mandolin. “I’m looking at them [my guitars] now, I’ve got one, two, three, I’ve got five. Part of the pleasure of playing an instrument is looking after it, maintaining it, knowing it…it’s part of the job,” Martin said.
See the Martin Barre Band perform the Blind Faith acoustic classic “Can’t Find My Way Home” Live at Factory Underground on YouTube:
When asked if he was classically trained, Martin said, “I had flute lessons, but I never had guitar lessons.” I’m astonished at how many of the guitarists I admire (Steve Howe, Eric Clapton, Prince, among many others) are self-taught — and they are musicians of the highest caliber-a group the includes Martin Barre. Indeed, a 2013 study by psychologists Peter D. Macintyre and Gillian K. Potter found that informal practice (self-taught) guitarists display “significantly higher levels of musical self-esteem, willingness to play, motivational intensity, desire to learn, and perceived competence.”
Which brings us back to that quote at the beginning of this interview. Between his solo work and reprising the Jethro Tull material, clearly Martin harbors a reverence for and service to the music. Never one to continue living in the past, Martin’s desire to grow leaves no room for lingering regrets or resentments with how things ended with his old band. “I didn’t really stand up for myself as much as I could have, but I am who I am. And I accept it, and I work with it. It’s given me a firm footing in reality.”
Be sure to experience Martin Barre’s extraordinary guitar work and revisit some Jethro Tull classics this coming Monday, April 22 at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, or Tuesday, April 23, at Rams Head on Stage in Annapolis, Maryland. A double live CD (one side acoustic, the other electric) from the tour will be available exclusively at the shows.