Longtime Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre and his band came through New York City last night to play two sets of hard blues-rock at Rockwood Music Hall. I caught the late show, which included a few originals, some classic blues, plenty of reimagined Tull material, and even a bit of prog-rockified Beatles.
Among other things, the show was a reminder not just of how good Barre was and still is, but of how key his distinctive guitar work and tone were to the harder side of Jethro Tull for all those years he worked beside Ian Anderson and the rest of the otherwise changing Tull lineup. Without Barre, the Jethro Tull oeuvre would be very different from the one we know.
At times, last night felt like hanging at a local blues club with a really good bar band – only one with an exceptional lead guitarist. And I mean “bar band” in the best possible sense: The musicians were approachable and communicative, and looked and sounded like they were having a blast.
Other moments felt like a badass progressive rock concert. Barre and the band rejiggered all their Jethro Tull selections to one degree or another, striking gold with “Teacher” and a knockout of an excerpt from “Thick as a Brick”; whipping “A New Day Yesterday” into a steely blues barrage with smoking guitar and bass solos; and making “Minstrel in the Gallery,” “Fat Man” and “Locomotive Breath” recognizable but new.
Singer and second guitarist Dan Crisp is a wiz on the fretboard, and does a pretty good job evoking Ian Anderson’s vocal style, too, although, as at so many rock clubs, the vocals were mixed much too low, the only failing in a show that otherwise sounded full and well-balanced. Drummer George Lindsay and bassist Alan Thomson are a crackling rhythm section.
The band’s hardened “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day” didn’t work as well for me, losing the delicacy integral to the song. But the heavy rewriting usually worked. From “Eleanor Rigby” to “Smokestack Lightning” to “Crossroads” (the only number for which Barre broke out his mandolin), familiar songs transformed became familiar songs revitalized. And all the while, Rockwood’s cramped confines felt like an intimate evening with a rock hero who seemed like he’d be happy to quaff a pint with you.
Ian Anderson wrote in “Skating Away,” “Do you ever get the feeling that the story’s too damn real and in the present tense?” For an hour and half at Rockwood, this old fan forgot about all the troubles of the present, and not only while hearing the old Jethro Tull favorites. Isn’t that what rock and roll is all about?