Back to Basics

Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre to feature new songs and reimagined classics on second U.S. tour

With his latest release, guitarist Martin Barre hasn’t returned to his roots so much as solidified his principles. The album, Back to Steel, is a mix of new blues-rock songs, a Beatles tune and a few reimagined works from Jethro Tull, the band he was in for decades before a sudden split a few years ago.

Barre was that band’s lead guitarist for 43 years and 21 studio albums, including landmark albums like Aqualung and Thick as a Brick. He was the longest-standing member after principal songwriter and frontman Ian Anderson, who abruptly dissolved the band in 2011.

The sudden decision could have left Barre in the lurch, had he not had so much to say musically. With a few solo releases under his belt already, the guitarist has promptly issued three albums since then. He’s coming to Ardmore Music Hall on April 23 as part of his second solo tour of the United States. The shows rely heavily on Barre’s own songs, but also make use of Jethro Tull’s extensive catalog.

“I’ll never lose that Tull connection, but I don’t want it to be the only thing I have going for me,” Barre said in a phone interview while on break during a recording session. “I want people to really enjoy the music I’m writing and recording. It won’t ever completely take over, but it becomes more and more important.”

Barre’s new work is stripped down and streamlined, especially compared to Tull’s often adventurous, occasionally bombastic, music. 2013’s Away With Words focused on melodic, acoustic-based songs while Order of Play in 2014 gave fans a taste of his new band’s live show.

Last year’s Back to Steel, according to Barre, is diverse in terms of genre, but straightforward when it came to his approach.

“It was really important for me that I wrote songs that were really going to work well as a four-piece band on stage,” he said. “I crave space and dynamics and sometimes emptiness in music, when there’s so little going on you can sort of hear your own breath and then you’re back, full-on again.”

17131336658_b271f98f96_zIt’s also a throwback to the band he first joined in 1968, and the culmination of what he’s learned as that group evolved over the next four decades.

Jethro Tull was a four-piece at the time, just coming out of its blues band origins. Over the years the band added more players and incorporated elements of folk, jazz and classical music. The lineup swelled to six players during Tull’s progressive rock heyday in the ‘70s, when they created dense, complex arrangements and released concept albums and single songs that took up both sides of a record.

The changes mostly suited Barre, who never really considered himself a blues player, anyway. “That’s the way I’ve always been,” he explained. “I’ve never gone one route, one style of music. I’ve always had a very broad outlook over all styles and aspects.”

The frequent lineup changes — around 20 musicians have been official band members over the years — also kept things fresh.

“I love working with musicians I don’t know,” said Barre. “You discover a lot about them and a lot about yourself. So you’re sort of asking them questions and asking yourself questions about what you’re going to do with music and how you’re going to work with other musicians. I think music is obviously a very shared medium and being able to work with other people is so important.”

But the changes, he admits, weren’t always for the best — especially, he says, the split between Anderson and himself with the band’s classic ‘70s lineup just before their 1980 album, simply entitled A.

“When that lineup completely went, I think it was a big mistake,” he admitted. “There was so much personality, we never got back to that — that group personality on stage.”

The overhaul ushered in what he felt was a cold, impersonal approach to music and a string of albums that relied on drum machines, synthesizers and studio magic. He considered the live-band feel on the Grammy-winning, guitar-driven 1987 album Crest of a Knave a satisfying return to form. But with his new band, Barre says he’s finally truly excited again.

26111694692_ced111647e_z“I love working with this group. It’s a great chemistry. I know it’s what all the bands say, but you can say it, but to actually have it is something very special,” he said. “It’s a really great feeling between the four of us. I can’t remember the last time there was something we tried that didn’t work. It’s a really great feeling to have that. It’s very positive.”

It’s also given him the confidence to rework old Tull songs — and not always the ones people may expect.

“It’s quite nice that I can do anything I want. I’m only picking out stuff that’s going to sound really, really good. I’m not doing anything because I have to do it,” said Barre. “There’s a huge amount of music, I don’t want to be predictable. I want people to come to a show and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t think they’d do that,’ or ‘I never knew that song could sound that good.’ ”

Martin Barre performs at Ardmore Music Hall, 23 Lancaster Ave. in Ardmore, on April 23. For information, visit www.martinbarre.com.

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