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Old songs, bright new lick of paint


Blue Mountains Theatre, November 22


What a sound. Just as a child draws a generic house with a door, two windows and a chimney, this is the generic sound conjured by the words Electric Guitar: raw, visceral and neon-bright. When a Martin Barre solo erupts from a song, it’s as though a purple Lamborghini’s throttle has been floored just as the sun has been switched on.

Somehow, Barre wasn’t deified like Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page, despite his sound, his solos and his magical touch. Perhaps this was down to context, with Jethro’s Tull’s eccentric music skipping between blues, jazz, progressive rock, English folk, heavy metal and fusion. Perhaps it was the records’ focus on Ian Anderson’s songs and the concert spotlight on the singer’s cavorting. Perhaps it was just that Barre’s solos were usually short. Nonetheless the band’s sonic brand was as much defined by Barre’s guitar as Anderson’s songs and flute.

Martin Barre's guitar work never received the attention it deserved while he was with Jethro Tull.

Martin Barre’s guitar work never received the attention it deserved while he was with Jethro Tull.

Now, after an acrimonious split, here was Martin Barre Celebrates 50 Years of Jethro Tull. Ah, you think: a trip, but now of the nostalgia variety. Not exactly, because playing these songs without Anderson has many ramifications – including no flute. And you don’t miss it. You gain more guitar, and Barre was always an infinitely finer guitarist than Anderson was a flautist. Secondly, Anderson’s voice, never especially robust, suffered problems that compromised it to the point of being a whisper of its former self. Barre’s band features the comparatively subdued singer/electric guitarist Dan Crisp, whose singing has similar timbre, but greater strength, allowing the band to revisit many long-neglected songs.

I’ve witnessed most versions of Tull across the decades, and this outfit, with its twin electric guitars, bassist Alan Thompson (of John Martyn fame) and Darby Todd’s virtuoso drumming, not only packed a mighty punch (wrapped in precision), it made the mix of classics and curiosities sound fresh. They also upheld the proud Tull tradition, rare in rock, of lacing the performance with self-deprecating fun. The ultimate joy, however, lay in Barre’s playing. Much emulated, himself, he never sounded like another soul.

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