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Review: Joshua Batten
Photos: Jason Rosewarne

The general image that comes to mind for the average fan of British Rock icons Jethro Tull is frontman Ian Anderson stood on one leg, playing the flute. Anderson has been the leader and face of Tull since their formation in 1968, but in being such a striking figure, almost all of the other musicians who have passed through the band get overlooked, without due credit for their talent. This is particularly true of guitarist Martin Barre, the second-longest serving member of the band and responsible for many of their classic riffs and licks. After 40+ years together, Barre and Anderson split in 2012, and while Anderson continues to tour the world with faceless musicians, Barre has put together a stellar four-piece band to play reinterpretations of the best (and often overlooked) songs from Tull’s back catalogue. Tonight it was just Barre, vocalist/guitarist Dan Crisp, bassist Alan Thomson and drummer Darby Todd. No keyboards, no flute, no fancy stage theatrics – just an evening of fan service with the guitar at the forefront, right where it belongs in Rock & Roll.

Starting at the beginning, the first five songs of the night came from Jethro Tull’s first two albums, “This Was” and “Stand Up”, which blended the Blues Rock of the time with the early sounds of what would become Prog. While Barre sticks closely to the original arrangements of the songs, a number of tunes have had their riffs and melodies slightly re-written to better suit the double-guitar sound of himself and Crisp. Indeed, when the band walked on and started playing a heavy blues riff, it wasn’t until Crisp started singing that I realised the track was “A Song For Jeffrey”. From there, I caught on to the tunes fairly quickly, and was impressed with how much the songs had been given a breath of fresh air from the new configuration. “Nothing Is Easy” was a highlight, with Barre and Crisp taking double-guitar harmonies evoking Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden.

Addressing the crowd a few times throughout the night, it was great to see Barre having such a great sense of humour, fondly remembering Festival Hall as “a shithole”, claiming the reason they were playing so loud was because it was powering up the St Kilda tram line, and apologising to one fan for playing so much “old stuff”. This last statement was backed up by the inclusion of two non-Tull songs from Barre’s prolific solo career. “Lone Wolf” and “Back To Steel” already sounded like classic tracks and fit in perfectly alongside the older gems of the night. The first set closed out with a 9-minute medley of excerpts from “Thick As A Brick”, followed by Jethro Tull’s most popular song “Aqualung”, with Barre recreating and adding to his original solo from 1971. In the true spirit of Progressive Rock, Barre’s guitar playing has progressed, with modern players like Steven Wilson and Joe Bonamassa influencing Barre as much as Page, Hendrix or Clapton. The result is a combo of blues licks and heavy metal flourishes, keeping the songs fresh for a modern audience.

It’s certainly a challenge for Dan Crisp to sing the lyrics and melodies of Ian Anderson without sounding like an imitation, but he pulls it off. Not only that, but he’s able to add his own flair to the tracks, acknowledging which bits need to be kept faithful to the original and which bits can be adjusted slightly to sound more natural. Thomson and Todd (on Bass and Drums respectively) are powerhouse players in their own right, with the former alternating between pick and fingers (with a few slaps thrown in) and the latter holding down the groove with high intensity.

After a 20 minute break, the band opened the second set with two songs from the “Warchild” album (The majestic title track and the wacky yet catchy “Sealion”), followed by a medley of the title tracks from “Heavy Horses” and “Songs From The Wood”, acknowledging the folk influence on those albums. The remainder of the second set featured more classic tunes including “Sweet Dream”, “Teacher” and “A New Day Yesterday”, before closing out the main set with “Jump Start”, from 1987’s “Crest of A Knave”. This album has become infamous in the rock world for beating out Metallica for the first ever Hard Rock/Metal Grammy, but there is no denying that when Jethro Tull wanted to, they could get really heavy. “Jump Start” is a perfect example, starting with a laid-back acoustic groove before ripping into a thunderous head-banging rhythm with guitar proficiency over the top. After a brief encore of “Locomotive Breath”, the night came to an end, and as we walked out of the venue, I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.

To see a guitarist from one of the biggest rock bands of the 70’s in such an intimate setting is pretty rare these days, and it’s even rarer for said guitarist to be at the top of their game at the age of 73. Despite his age, he spent the entire night stamping and bouncing across the stage as if he was in his 20’s. The rest of the band followed his lead gracefully, and the end result was that I didn’t miss the flute, the keyboards or the orchestral arrangements at all! The only bit of ‘trickery’ going on was an electronic drum pad, used by Todd for a clash cymbal sample in “Songs From The Wood” and a brief flute sample in “Jump Start”. Aside from that, two guitars, bass and drums was enough to instil the nostalgia of the songs in me and the several other ‘experienced’ members of the audience, and it’s given me some great arranging ideas for songs with my own band in the future.

Barre & Co. have one more gig in Melbourne tonight at the Corner Hotel before they carry on to Adelaide and Fremantle – If you don’t have plans and you’re even remotely interested in Jethro Tull, Prog Rock or Blues Rock, make sure you catch them for a night of rock and roll at its purest and greatest.

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