Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Martin Barre - 50 Years Of Jethro Tull

The last time I saw Jethro Tull was ten years ago, when I drove through a filthy night of wind and snow to see them on their fortieth anniversary tour, and they opened the show with Ian Anderson and Martin Barre stage front, aptly playing the atmospheric acoustic track ‘Dun Ringill’ with its “Stormwatch brews” lyric.
Nowadays of course, the pair have gone their separate ways.  But here’s Martin Barre popping up with a 28 track, two CD retrospective celebrating 50 Years Of Jethro Tull.  And why not?  Anderson may have been the well-spring for all things Tull, but if there’s anyone else with a sure grasp on the band’s aesthetic it must be Barre, his wingman for so many years.  And so it proves with this intriguing, satisfying collection of Tull material.
The songs are of course shorn of Anderson’s flute playing and idiosyncratic vocals.  But the
Martin Barre now . . .
interest levels are maintained by a track selection that blends deep cuts with old favourites, and brings some fresh arrangements to bear – particularly so in the case of Disc 2, which features female vocals from Alex Hart and Becca Langford on stripped back versions of several songs.
But to begin at the beginning, Disc 1 focuses on a batch of live-in-the-studio performances, including the likes of ‘My Sunday Feeling’ and ‘Hymn 43’, on which Tull’s bluesy roots are apparent even as they’re bent into different shapes.  On the former, with its tense ascending riff, there’s a relaxed swing under the melody, but it’s disrupted by bursts of bright chords, stinging flurries of guitar notes from Barre, and sharp drum fills from Darby Todd.  The more contemplative, mid-paced ‘Hymn 43’ is most notable for Barre’s feisty guitar licks, a suitable counterpart to Anderson’s acerbic lyric about the misuse of religion.  And later there’s ‘Teacher’, a personal favourite, weaving more bluesiness around its two-steps-forward, two-steps-back riff and its shifts from swinging to gutsy, before concluding with a blazing Barre solo over a crashing rhythm section.  
‘For A Thousand Mothers’ is a hectic affair, with a trademark byzantine Tull riff over complex, ducking and diving drums, which Barre accents with a succession of guitar breaks, ahead of lower-pitched solo.  ‘Sealion’ develops from a spiky, discordant intro to lay out simple, muscular riffing and scurrying guitar lines as a basis for Anderson’s metaphorical lyric about performing animals (like your friendly neighbourhood rock band), leaving space for the imagery then underlining it.  ‘Back To The Family’ references folk-rock elements from the Tull game plan, then bursts into life with Barre knocking out a piercing solo, accelerating over the racing rhythm section.  And speaking of folk-rock, while vocalist Dan Crisp wisely avoids outright imitation of Anderson’s vocal style, as songs go by his delivery hints more at English folkiness, perhaps reflecting his previous associations with various Fairport alumni.
They crank things up with a run of ‘Hunting Girl’, the aforementioned ‘Teacher’, and ‘Steel Monkey’.  The first shows off peak-Tull twisting and turning and mixing of folk and heaviness, the music again informing the story, and with some terrific guitar/bass harmonising between Barre and Alan Thomson.  The last is a more modern rocker, with heavy riffing, a tense and tough vibe, and a great bass line from Thomson adding to the groove.
. . . and then
Contrastingly, the second disc opens in dreamy form with ‘Wond’ring Aloud’, the voices of Alex Hart and Becca Langford winding together over sparse acoustic backing.  They follow that up with ‘Someday The Sun Won’t Shine’, a two-minute acoustic blues that Larkin Poe would be proud of, with another delicious female vocal over acoustic strumming and a glittering acoustic guitar break.  And ‘Life’s A Long Song’ completes a beautiful trio of tunes, with another pure vocal over magical, precise guitar picking from Barre, and understated complementary bass from Thomson – on stand-up bass, I’m guessing.
On ‘Under Wraps’ electric guitar and drums add more muscle and swing to proceedings, but with Hart and Langford’s singing it’s a more organic take than the original, more electronic version.  And later they bring a beguiling new dimension to ‘Locomotive Breath’, all rippling guitar and mandolin over insistent, nagging bodhrán, adorned by languid, layered female voices.  Meantime a purely instrumental rendition of ‘Home’ is exquisitely wistful.
Dan Crisp returns to the microphone for some tracks, delivering an aching vocal on the subdued ‘Still Loving You Tonight’, with its ticking rhythm guitar and sparkling lead lines, and getting into a lower register for the Celtic-feeling ‘Slow Marching Band’ as it shifts from reflective to rousing.  And he also has the last word, as they close the circle with the blues-based ‘A New Day Yesterday’, light and shade swirling around its beefy riff and swaggering rhythm.
The set also includes four tracks taken from a 2019 show in the States, at which Tull bandmates Clive Bunker and Dee Palmer guested on drums and keys.  Of these, the intricacies and folk elements of ‘Heavy Horses’ and ‘Songs From The Wood’ do more for me than ‘Warchild’ and the rather shallow ‘Bungle In The Jungle’.
But it’s the rediscovery of old songs, and the fresh take on others on Disc 2 in particular, that make 50 Years Of Jethro Tull a worthwhile exercise.  Those factors, and one other:  Martin Barre continues to be a twelfth-dan, black-belt rock guitarist, and a way more interesting player than many big-name axe merchants one could name.

50 Years Of Jethro Tull was released by The Store For Music on 6 November, and is available here.

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