Photo credit to my neighbor, Bon.
Well, do you ever get the feeling that the story’s too damn real and in the present tense?
Or that everybody’s on the stage, and it seems like you’re the only person
Sitting in the audience?
Skating away, skating away,
Skating away on the thin ice of the New Day.
That’s how the evening was billed, a night of blues, rock, and Tull with The Martin Barre Band. And what a band it is! I’ve seen hundreds of concerts over the years, in venues ranging from tiny clubs to massive outdoor shows at football stadiums. I’d be hard pressed to think of too many shows that I enjoyed more than this one.
Speaking of tiny clubs, The Sportsmens Tavern in Buffalo is about as tiny as they come. I overheard the owner tell someone that they cap the ticket sales at 220. What’s really cool about it though is that it has a second floor and if you jockey for a good spot, you’re practically on top of the band(in the gallery, watching the minstrels). Jockey away, we did. My friend and neighbor Bon was my companion for the night, as there was no way the lovely Missus was going to like this show. So our wives stayed home, drinking wine in the neighbor’s hot tub while we rocked out.
The four piece band opened with an instrumental that was unfamiliar to me. Barre’s guitar tone was immediately recognizable though. I’d recognize his guitar sound anywhere. Then they tore into To Cry You a Song from the underrated Benefit album and as soon as vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Dan Crisp started singing, I knew I was in for something special. He sings with an accent that sounds remarkably similar to Ian Anderson. Not the reedy, thin, latter day Anderson. The warm, rich, British voice that Anderson had early on, before he blew it out with thousands of concerts and cigarettes. Crisp seemed to channel Anderson often during the night, not just with his vocals, but with facial expressions and gestures as he sang. No, he did not hop up on one leg. In fact, there was no flute playing at all.
Tull had many different phases, sometimes mixing them all into the same album, but they started off as a blues band. If this tour is any indication, Barre may have preferred that Tull had stayed in that idiom. This is how I imagine that Tull sounded live up until 1970, when they were a muscular blues and hard rock band, with dashes of folk and world music thrown in. I don’t know enough about drumming to write about it, other than to say this drummer reminded me very much of Clive Bunker and not so much Barrie Barlow. The bass player also played the mandolin and some tasty slide guitar. His bio says he was a long time member of John Martyn’s band. Wow!
It’s heartening to know that this music lives on, that it hasn’t gone the way of the dinosaur. The Martin Barre Band has reinvented and reinterpreted this music, much like King Crimson is currently doing and certainly like all of the Grateful Dead offshoots have been doing for the past twenty years.
Many of the Tull songs they did were stood up on their heads and played in an entirely different way. That’s not a complaint. Acoustic based songs like Skating Away and Fat Man were turned into hard rocking tunes. The melodies remained familiar but were not replicas. Conversely, the hard rocking Hymn 43 was turned into an acoustic song, following The Jig, which was accompanied by a raucous hand clap from the crowd. The only other acoustic tune they did was a cover of Crossroads. Yes, that Crossroads. Done with a mandolin. It was brilliant. The set list was equally brilliant. Barre chose many deep cut Tull tunes that had not been played live for years, including Love Story, Song For Jeffrey, Teacher, and Sealion. They ended the first set with Thick as a Brick but again, chose a different path. Instead of playing the first three, five, or twelve minutes, as Tull often would do, this band dove right into the middle of it, starting with the poet and the painter. It was brilliant. Have I already mentioned that? Truly, this was a singular experience.
At one point, Barre told a story about his first Christmas as a member of Jethro Tull. That would have been 1968. He said they were in London and the entire city was a ghost town, with everyone back at home with their families. Not Tull though. Anderson, Barre, Bunker, and Cornick were holed up in a “shitty basement”, practicing. On Christmas! The band was always known to be tight as hell. They worked their tails off and, unlike many of their peers, didn’t overindulge in the trappings of the day.
Here’s what I remember of the set list: To Cry You A Song, Minstrel in the Gallery, Back to Steel, Eleanor Rigby, Sealion, Love Story, Skating Away, Teacher, This as a Brick, Sweet Dreams, Thorazine Shuffle, Crossroads Blues, Jig/Hymn 43, Smokestack Lightening, Bad Man, A Song For Jeffrey, Fat Man, A New Day Yesterday, Nothing to Say, Locomotive Breath.
If you’ve ever been even remotely into Tull, this is a band not to be missed.