Jethro Tull might be better known for arguably making the flute a legitimate hard rock lead instrument and in stealing a Grammy win from Metallica. But when it comes down to it, the band has always been a bit belittled. They wore their eclectic, mysterious broadswords and minstrel image proudly on their medieval shirt sleeve, and no doubt influenced Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge.”
But the band was much, much more than that common generalization and it had superb material with sonic and thematic weight. The 1971 album “Aqualung” was a massive success and its title track, along with Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” is in the pantheon of “classic guitar riffs anyone can play.”
From 1969 to 2012, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Martin Barre co-piloted the group through worldwide success and sustained popularity. He will perform with his own band at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace this Saturday.
Since leaving Tull, Barre has concentrated on his own solo career as a guitarist, but more specifically a songwriter. His latest album, last year’s “Roads Less Travelled,” shows the 72-year-old guitarist playing with a sense of fluid youthful intuition and a craftsman’s bold confidence.
“It’s the first album that all the songs I’ve written myself,” Barre said in a phone interview on the road from Everett, Wash. “My solo instrumental music is quite established, but as a songwriter I’m still fairly learning as I go. It’s an important exercise in trying to get the best songs down on record that I could.”
Songs, like the odd-time “Out of Time,” the lovely acoustic instrumental “Trinity,” “Seattle” (the most “Jethro Tull” of all the songs) and the flowing “For No Man,” show Barre’s evolving maturity as a songwriter as well as his strength in editing. He’s kept his songs lean, powerful and engaging.
Barre’s guitar sound also changes character from song to song; toggling between intricate, delicate and muscular while retaining an almost sweet clarity.
Fans of Jethro Tull will enjoy it, but so will fans of prog-rock bands like Yes and especially solo-era Robert Plant in the 1980s: adventurous music, solid — almost terrifying — musicianship, uncluttered production and an opulent range of influences. It’s a balancing act between instinct and discipline.
Solo material aside, Barre is aware of playing to the audience so the majority of the show will be Jethro Tull material. The set-list will include fan-favorites as well as some older, unexpected material.
“That’s really refreshing,” Barre said. “They’re important tracks historically and they sound great because most of the early material was written around guitar parts, so there’s nothing missing sonically. It’s a strong set. It’s a good balance of music.”
“It’s an exciting gig, and that’s what I want music to be.”
The audience can also expect interaction from the thoughtful and pleasant Barre, who champions communication between performers and the audience.
“I think, in many ways, people don’t know me. They know Ian (Anderson, Jethro Tull’s frontman) so well because he always traditionally did all the chat onstage. And I just think, 'I want them (the audience) to know me and the guys in the band.’ I guess now, after 70 years, to sort of get up there and not say anything, wouldn’t work.”
As to that previously mentioned Grammy upset, this year marks the 30th anniversary of it: Jethro Tull winning the Grammy for the inaugural category of best hard rock/metal performance vocal or instrumental for their album “Crest of a Knave.” They beat out a list of hard rock, punk and heavy metal heavyweights that included AC/DC, Iggy Pop, Jane’s Addiction as well as that year’s frontrunner, Metallica, who had just delivered an electrifyingly intense performance of its song "One." The award was as good as theirs.
The stunned reaction of attendees and viewers everywhere when Alice Cooper said, “and the award goes to … Jethro Tull?” reverberates to this day. The win was seen as proof of an out-of-touch Grammy selection process when it came to hard rock and heavy metal music. Barre is thoughtful in his place in Grammy history, only being able to acknowledge his side as bittersweet.
“I think we deserved it, in retrospect," Barre said. "It doesn’t matter about categories and controversy. I think my only regret was that I wasn’t there to receive it. But the record label (Chrysalis) said, ‘No. You’ve got no chance of winning so we’re not going to fly you out to L.A..’ I felt really bad. I thought it was quite rude that we weren’t be there to actually say ‘thank you.’ I can’t change it, but it’s a big regret.”
"It means the world and I’m sure I’ll never get another one. I’m just so glad that we had that one window of opportunity and I’m very proud of it.”