Sometimes the whole surpasses the sum of its parts. Such was the case when Jethro Tull’s Martin Barre Band performed a spectacular set at Chicago’s Martyrs on Tuesday, April 26th. The two-part set included hard hitting tracks off of Barre’s latest blues-rock solo album, ‘Back To Steel’, ‘Blackest Eyes,’ a cover by Steven Wilson (Porcupine), a bittersweet ballad with the heady line, “I got wiring loose inside my head,” Robert Johnson’s fabled ‘Crossroad’ and ‘Rock Me’, (“like a rolling stone’), which set off an instrumental domino effect. As expected, they performed many hits from ’60s prog rock band, Jethro Tull, where Barre spent five decades of his epic career as lead guitarist before branching out as a soloist.
“You don’t have this and we do,” Barre exclaimed, before the British band launched into a clever reworking of ‘Eleanore Rigby’ by The Beatles. He also expressed how much he has enjoyed reworking classic Tull material, but the proof was in the playing. One fan wondered how the band would cover the “flute parts”, but was pleased with the outpouring of electric guitars and full-bodied rhythms.
‘Skating Away on The Thin Ice of a New Day’ with its wind-up verse was a fine contrast to ‘A New Day Yesterday’, which was blanketed in deep blues. ‘The Whistler’ from ‘Song of The Wood’ was one of the more cerebral undertakings. “All kinds of sadness I’ve left behind me,” Dan Crisp sang smoothly, with a tinge of melancholia. Martin’s ‘Jig and Hymn’ (‘A Way With Words’, 2013) inspired several couples to go swing dancing near the crowded bar. But who wouldn’t? After all, Barre expected it: “Clap your hands and stomp your feet!”
Other popular Tull classics: ‘Minstrel’, ‘Fat Man’ and Mick Abraham’s ‘A Song for Jeffrey’ brought back fond memories and encouraged off stage high fives, mouthed lyrics and air guitar solos.
The crowd had already staked out seats an hour before showtime, where they had opportunities to reminisce with other locals about past Tull club dates at The Chicago AmpithTheater and the Kinetic Playground as well as performances nationwide. One fan had been to so many performances that he had lost count.
Expectations were high, but were exceeded due to amazing craftmanship amongst the players. The overall sound quality was also impressive. Birmingham-born Barre immediately set the friendly tone between songs by joking with his fans and sincerely thanking them for years of support. “We’ve waited four years to be here,” he exclaimed.
Lead vocalist/guitarist Dan Crisp held nothing back. Ian Anderson’s rhythmic lyrics require a fine ear, and the lead vocalist handled the curious pentameters and sectional transitions with ease and admirable tone. Crisp, whose own new single, ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’ was inspired by Leonard Cohen, demonstrated a serious appreciation for the repertoire at hand, which he illustrated with animated facial expressions and compelling gestures.
When Barre and Crisp battled harmonically on their electric guitars, the fans went wild. Dressed in black, Alan Thomson showed off his technical expertise during a lustful bass solo and dazzling display of sultry slide. A few fans expressed surprise and delight, commenting that slide guitar is not normally associated with prog rock. Drummer George Lindsay’s command of the drum kit was clear from the instrumental opener ‘Hammer’. (Both Lindsay and Crisp have performed on two of Barre’s more recent albums: ‘Martin Barre’ (2012) and the following year’s ‘Away With Words’.
But Barre was the super glue. Always the showman, he changed from an eye-catching pastel T-shirt to a simple black T under a bright gold and black vest for the second part of the concert, where he pulled out all the stops: Celtic riffs, soulful blues and super-charged, aggressive rock riffery. Yet his years of performance haven’t affected his ego. “I thought I’d play it on mandolin and ruin it,” he quipped, before launching into a Johnson cover.
In his lengthy career, Barre has worked with Paul Butterfield, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and many others, yet his style has remained distinctive.
After an extremely generous set and to satisfy the fan request for an encore, The Martin Barre Band returned to play ‘Locomotive Breath’; yes, without the infamous piano intro., but with enormous passion. The band ended the evening by signing CDs and mingling with fans. Rumors are abuzz that this great band will return in September, so clear your fall calendar–just in case..