by David Koral
I used to hold onto my concert ticket stubs, when such things existed. But if the nosebleed-red cardstock from the 1979 Jethro Tull show at Madison Square Garden is still around, it’s likely at the bottom of a landfill, keeping Staten Island warm. I couldn’t help thinking back to it prior to the show last Saturday night, when I overheard some longtime fan lament how it wasn’t right that Martin Barre, who had played large venues in the past, should now appear on such a small stage at the Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side. But back then, as I recall, from an elevation of a mile or so, Martin Barre and his bandmates appeared more or less as stick figures.
Not the case in this ground-floor space, however. On the contrary, it was a great opportunity to see Jethro Tull’s longtime guitarist up close and personal. Taking the stage promptly at seven, he struck the graceful warm-up pose one might expect from a seasoned club performer: with his left arm extended outward, like a ballerina or a Greek statue, he touched a toe to the digital tuner on the floor, and he was ready to rock.
And were those really the opening notes to “To Cry You a Song” I heard? Yes, I do think so. In Dan Crisp, Martin Barre has found a clear-voiced front man with a strong stage manner and well-honed guitar chops, who effortlessly harmonized the lead line on his drool-worthy black Les Paul Custom. Dan was given the first solo, but in no time, Martin was working the neck of his gray Paul Reed Smith, shredding faster than any metalhead I’ve ever seen while anticipating new chord positions and adeptly rolling back the volume to restore dynamics. Watching his fingers like a hawk, I couldn’t help but wonder what gauge of strings he uses; with every subtle touch they bent and quivered, producing sweet squalls through the Marshall cab backed against the wall.
The band continued the momentum with “Minstrel in the Gallery,” but simmered down with the title cut of Barre’s new solo album, Back to Steel. Ably backed by the pulsing bass of Alan Thompson and the steady beat of George Lindsay, the intricate guitar interplay between Martin and his foil recalled Dokken and the mid-’90s progressive metal band Extreme.
Experimenting in the same vein, they covered “Eleanor Rigby,” combining light arpeggios and Spanish guitar figures to re-imagine the refrain from the Beatles’ psychedelic classic. “The English are people of so few words,” Martin said as an introduction, explaining the major difference between “bollocks” (rubbish) and “amazingly bollocks” (the Beatles, in his opinion). It’s a distinction worth bearing in mind, to avoid winding up in a fistfight.
“I take out the bits of songs I don’t like and leave in the ones I do,” he said, revealing a keen sense of humor and setting the stage for what would be the climax of the show. What parts does he like? “Only the guitar solo.” With that, the band launched into a taut rendition of the “Poet and the Painter” section of “Thick as a Brick,” and smoothly transitioned to the “Childhood Heroes” passage.
“We’re just another cover band,” Martin said, introducing tunes by Warren Haynes and Porcupine Tree, before picking up his mandolin for an adaptation of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” that strangely recalled Songs from the Wood. In a black T-shirt and jeans, he looked so much younger and leaner than those very woolen country squires on the cover of Heavy Horses or Bursting Out.
The show concluded with tasty versions of old favorites such as “Teacher” and a bluesy version of “New Day Yesterday.” At the beginning of the show, Martin’s ax was polished so bright you could see your face in it, but rock ’n’ roll does involve sweat, and by the end, great big bullets were rolling off his forehead and onto the flaming maple top.
So, finally, all of us middle-aged teenagers stomped hard and cheered real loud. And guess what happened? He decided to come back out to do an encore, “Locomotive Breath,” with chukka-chukka so delicious it was worth the price of admission, and proving once and for all that flute solos are not necessary for honest rock ’n’ roll.