It might be a Tuesday night, but there’s a legend in town. Martin Barre has been the guitarist with Jethro Tull for forty-three years. Only Ian Anderson has been in the band longer and he formed it. With the band taking a break from touring for a while Barre, who won a Grammy for his playing on Crest Of A Knave, has put together a band to play classic Tull material, amongst other things. I don’t know, maybe these guitarists think their finger will seize up if they stop playing for a while… There are a few Jethro Tull albums in my collection but I’m not such a big fan that I would recognise many of their songs. Still, this was too good an opportunity to miss.
With no support, the set opened with Barre, Hilaire Rama (bass) and George Lindsay (drums) playing a bluesy instrumental, the guitar playing over a lazy rhythm section. Eventually, the rest of the band – Pat O’May (guitar), Dan Crisp (vocals and acoustic guitar) and Frank Mead (flute, sax and harmonica) – arrived on stage. Crisp’s vocals had the characteristic inflections of those of Ian Anderson, if not the familiar tones, giving the impression that this was not just the sort of tribute act who try to reproduce the sound of a band exactly. After playing To Cry You A Song, Barre introduced the band, quipping that they were going to play “the Tull songs that I like”. There was lots of banter between songs, most of which must have been in-jokes for Tull fans, of which there were many in the audience, judging by the number of band T-shirts. Much of it went over my head. It wasn’t just Tull, though. Barre also played Blues numbers, such as Watch Your Step, that influenced his career and that he played in the Birmingham clubs in the mid-sixties, as well as examples of his solo works, like After You After Me, from his 2003 instrumental album Stage Left, which showed some sumptuous twin guitar work.
White Innocence, a rare Tull track, was followed by another of Barre’s solo pieces, The Potion, with O’May taking over on vocals and featuring some impressive guitar work. Not as impressive, though, as the crazy time signatures of A Passion Play, Part II with it’s gorgeous sax opening. The Blues influence continued with Steal Your Heart Away, another song from the mid-sixties, this time played in the style of Joe Bonamassa. Barre introduced the next track as from an album that has been “quite popular this year” and even I got the reference, with 2012 being the fortieth anniversary of Thick As A Brick (and the year that Ian Anderson released its sequel). More blues followed as Mead came centre-stage to take the lead vocals and to give it his all on harmonica on Sugarbabe, originally recorded by Buster Brown in 1962. Then it was back to Barre’s solo work with Mysere, which continued the blues feel, before he announced that the band would be taking a fifteen minute break.
It was a bit surprising, therefore, to see him and Crisp back on stage after just five minutes, performing Still Loving You Tonight (one of the tracks that I do have in my collection). Apparently Barre had only just been told about the venue’s ten-thirty curfew. It was nearly ten o’clock and the band weren’t even halfway through the set. There followed frequent annoyed (at the venue, not at the band) shouting from the audience as Barre tried to decide which songs to cut from the second part of the set, declaring the situation “a nightmare” and ten-thirty as a “ridiculous time to end a gig”. Things livened up with the playing of a jig, which eventually turned into Hymn 43 from Aqualung (another track in my collection), during which Barre and Crisp swapped guitars for mandolins (or the like). The tracks in this section were coming fast and furious, as Barre attempted to make up time, his dislike of the curfew becoming more and more evident (as was that of the crowd). Eventually, after Mead had once again taken the lead for Song For Geoffrey and O’May had performed another stunning, slightly heavier instrumental, which included a wild sax section, and with the clock moving inexorably towards ten-thirty, the band played Living In The Past, one of Tull’s best known songs. Amid shouts of “carry on!” Barre asked if anybody from the venue was around. Nobody came forward, so he decided to just carry on. and played another instrumental before finishing the set (at around ten to eleven, yay!) with A New Day Yesterday.
The calibre of musicians on stage meant that this was a high-standard show, even taking into account the rushed feeling of the second half. As a whole, it was a lot more blues-orientated than I expected. Having said that, Jethro Tull started out as a blues band and have reportedly denied the “prog” label that is often used for them. I can’t help feeling, though, that the Duchess isn’t doing itself any favours as a live venue by having such an early curfew, especially as they don’t seem to tell the artists in advance (at least in this case). I know that the nightclub which invariably follows a live gig brings in a lot of money and almost certainly helps keep the live music side of the business going, but does it really take that long to get ready for it? I also wonder whether Barre will want to return to the venue, given some of his comments from the stage.