Guitarist Martin Barre on COVID and 50 Years of Jethro Tull

The unexpected upside of not having set foot inside of a live music venue for eight months has been rediscovering records that I had fallen out of touch with over the years. Sure, plenty of artists have chosen to release new music during the pandemic, but there’s something exhilarating about getting reacquainted with an album that you feel the rest of the universe missed out on the first time around.

For example, when the opportunity arose to speak with Martin Barre about his latest project commemorating 50 years of Jethro Tull, my mind immediately cited 1989’s “Rock Island” and 1991’s “Catfish Rising” as two works that were unfairly fossilized at a time when the mainstream’s attention was being seized by a certain city in the Pacific Northwest. Having an album come out 14 days before “Nevermind” would be the commercial kiss of death for any band, let alone one whose style was still very much rooted in the classic rock of the 1970s, so the latter never really had a chance.

I asked Barre about that record and more during our recent conversation, and, if you’ve been missing the feel of a crowd as much as I have, maybe his upcoming collection of Tull classics can fill the void until we’re able to see him grace The Sportsmen’s Tavern stage once again.

MNOD: The last time we spoke was in September of 2018 when you were coming to Buffalo on the Roads Less Travelled tour, so it’s great to hear from you again.

MB: I appreciate you getting the word out about the new CD. Yes, at the Sportsmen’s. That’s always a great venue and we hope to get back there soon. Hopefully, it survives, because they’ve always been good to us.

MNOD: How have you fared thus far throughout the pandemic?

MB: I’ve stayed busy. I had a summer off for the first time in 50 years, which was nice, but I’ve still been working on some things. I’ve done a little writing and I’m getting ready to release a DVD around Christmas. I’m never bored. To be able to spend 4, 5, or 6 hours alone with my guitar on any given day has been great, as well.

MNOD: Live music has taken what many consider to be an irreparable hit this year. What would it take for you to get back out on the road at this point?

MB: It would have to be under the right circumstances. Some people have said they won’t tour until there’s widespread immediate testing and others have said that they won’t be doing anything until there’s a vaccine. It’s not a simple yes or no answer, because it’s a complex question. Even if they allow audiences, people are going to be uncomfortable for a long time, so we really need to think about how we’re going to approach getting back to concerts again. Of all the ideas out there at the moment, I haven’t seen one that feels like the solution yet. Venues like the Sportsmen’s are fighting to survive and I wonder if they will.

MNOD: What have you been doing in your downtime?

MB: I play in a table tennis league and I have a robot trainer, which is amazing. I also like running and playing tennis, so I have a lot of hobbies in my spare time. Being able to spend time playing guitar just for fun has been a pleasure.

MNOD: Celebrating 50 years of Jethro Tull in the middle of a pandemic feels anticlimactic, but being able to revisit the band’s catalog in lieu of live music has given me a deeper sense of appreciation for the later albums. How do you feel about the band’s legacy in 2020?

MB: I’d like the band to be remembered for the way it is right now. Our longevity speaks for itself and we always tried to do the right thing. We were polite and we had a work ethic that ensured that there would always be a place for us in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. There was a magazine in the UK that did a poll of the Top 200 prog musicians ever and I think everyone from Jethro Tull made the list at one spot or another. We weren’t the greatest band, but we weren’t the worst, either. Of course, it’s not up to me, because music is such a subjective thing.

MNOD: How did you ultimately decide which songs made it onto the new CD?

MB: Mostly, I went with ones that work really well on stage or ones that the other guys in my band enjoy playing. With Tull, we played to primarily rock audiences in the early ’70s, so I wanted songs that have a powerful guitar presence. It ended up being a pleasurable process, because digging back into the catalog was quite fun.

MNOD: “Crest of a Knave,” “Rock Island,” and “Catfish Rising” are a few later works that contain a lot of great material yet often get overlooked. Did you find yourself being surprised at all by songs that you may have forgotten about?

MB: There were a few songs that I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover. The Tull catalog is so vast that I never had to worry about running out of material. The thing about the Tull albums is that they all had something about them to enjoy. When I started playing my solo sets, I would include all Tull, but, later on, I would find the right mixture between Tull classics and my own songs. I started cutting out a few that I didn’t enjoy as much. When we won the Grammy for “Crest of a Knave,” I think everyone knew that the metal category was wrong, but we were honored to get the recognition. The category didn’t matter. That’s the thing about music. When an album is special like that, the genre is unimportant. “Still Loving You Tonight” is a song from “Catfish Rising” that I included on this release, but it’s not a song that was fresh in my mind. I listened to it again for the first time in a long time and enjoyed the guitar parts.

MNOD: Is there a lineup of Jethro Tull that sticks out in your mind as being your favorite?

MB: We never had a bad band. I really liked the lineup with John Glascock on bass, but they were all great in their own way. Of course, I think the band I’m playing with now is the best, but I’m biased.

MNOD: Now that you’ve had some time to go back through the catalog, is there an album that you feel deserves to be reevaluated?

MB: “Under Wraps” is an album that I don’t think got enough credit at the time of its release. The use of electronic drums was a mistake, but there are a lot of good songs on there that I think would have a different feel if re-recorded. The songs were good and the playing was good.

MNOD: You mentioned earlier that you were writing some new music. Are there plans to turn it into something down the line?

MB: Not right now. I won’t go any further with it until early next year, because I’m still waiting to see what happens with everything.

“50 Years of Jethro Tull” will be released on Nov. 6. Do us all a favor and pay for a physical copy.

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