If there could be a Mount Rushmore of musicians who changed the entire trajectory of the popular rock bands they joined, by sheer force of their inclusion, guitarist Martin Barre of Jethro Tull would be on it. Perhaps with fellow guitarists Steve Howe of Yes and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, plus drummer Neil Peart of Rush.
The natural inclination would be to compare Barre, who appears with his self-titled band for “A Night of Acoustic Delights” shows at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach on May 3 and 5, to the other guitarists. Yet Gilmour, who replaced original Pink Floyd guitarist Syd Barrett in 1967 (with each appearing separately on the group’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets), and Howe, who replaced original Yes guitarist Peter Banks in 1970 for the band’s third release (The Yes Album), led their acts further into commercial success by re-shaping their acidic pop and vocal harmony-driven progressive rock styles, respectively.
Peart and Barre actually made Rush and Jethro Tull change shape even more. With original drummer John Rutsey, Rush’s self-titled 1974 debut was more blues-based than the fantasia the trio would become known for afterward, largely because of Peart’s lyrics and virtuosity. And Barre replaced original Jethro Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams after the group’s bluesy 1968 debut, This Was, leading to uniquely classical-and-jazz-influenced rhythms, harmonies and melodies.
Singer/flutist/guitarist Ian Anderson’s recognizable voice was practically the only identifiable element on This Was for future fans among roots music chords more akin to Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, and Led Zeppelin. But on Jethro Tull’s standout 1969 follow-up, Stand Up, Barre’s playing commandeered the band’s U-turn toward all-time preeminent progressive rock act status, perhaps even more as a live act than in the studio. And true to form for a 72-year-old British gent, he downplays his importance regarding such a tectonic Jethro Tull audio shift.
“It wasn’t me who changed things as much as Ian’s songwriting,” Barre says by phone from Hudson Falls, N.Y., between his band’s first two “Celebrates 50 Years of Jethro Tull” tour stops, each at the Strand Theater. “I wasn’t a blues-based guitar player, and we weren’t writing or playing blues-based material anymore. But the late 1960s was a fantastic time to have started a band. We worked hard to distinguish ourselves, and it paid off.”
Jethro Tull’s output of releases stormed through the 1970s; decreased in the 1980s, and dramatically slowed in the 1990s, when Barre started his solo recording career. Most of the handful of releases under his own name have come since 2012, when Anderson dissolved the group (he’s since toured with his self-titled solo band, excluding Barre, for commemorative 50th anniversary shows). Barre likewise celebrates Jethro Tull’s golden anniversary by playing its material on tour stops throughout Europe and the United States, including Wednesday at the Seminole Theatre in Homestead, Thursday at the Key West Theater, and Saturday at RosFest in Sarasota.
“Our first night of playing the Jethro Tull material last night was pretty amazing,” he says. “We’ve put an incredible amount of work into rehearsals, with everyone giving it their all. The crowd went absolutely berserk.”
Barre’s latest solo recording, last year’s Roads Less Travelled, features him playing with vocalist/guitarist Dan Crisp, bassist Alan Thomson, drummer Darby Todd, and female singers Alex Hart and Becca Langsford. The same personnel appears for the Florida shows. The disc traverses the acoustic and Celtic styles that became familiar within the Jethro Tull catalog, but also leans more into blues and even occasional R&B material.
“I’m very much my own person as a composer,” Barre says. “In Jethro Tull, I always contributed riffs and ideas, and those will always be there. But as much as I want to keep that flame alive with shows celebrating the band, I also want independence from it. So in Delray Beach, myself, Dan and Alan will all play acoustic guitars on a mix of my instrumentals and vocal tunes sung by Dan, Alex and Becca. Plus bouzoukis, mandolins and percussion; covers of songs by The Eagles and Steve Winwood, and of course a healthy mix of Jethro Tull material.”
On his Jethro Tull-themed tour stops, commemorative CDs are available, and Barre’s personnel is augmented by original Jethro Tull contributors Clive Bunker (drummer from 1967-1971) and Dee Palmer (arranger/keyboardist from 1967-1980). Crisp capably handles Anderson’s vocal parts while playing rhythm guitar and doing some harmonized solos with Barre; Thomson navigates the distinct lines of Jethro Tull bassists from Glenn Cornick and Jeffrey Hammond to John Glascock and Dave Pegg, Todd trades off with Bunker as he and Palmer elicit past glories, and Hart and Langsford sing lead and backing vocals.
And then there’s the signature, punctuating, stinging solos, chords and accents by Barre, whose 43-year tenure in Jethro Tull made him the band’s co-pilot to Anderson. The two never even had to negotiate the use of the Jethro Tull name for touring purposes after its demise seven years ago.
“Ian said that there would be no Jethro Tull without him or myself in the band, even though he probably regrets saying that,” Barre says with a laugh. “So there’s no need to discuss using the name for touring, since neither of us is calling our band Jethro Tull. I have tremendous respect for Ian. He taught me a lot about discipline, and he’s an incredible composer and lyricist.”
One of Barre’s prized possessions from the Jethro Tull years is its Grammy Award, however curious, for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, Vocal or Instrumental for its 1987 album Crest of a Knave. Hardly hard rock or metal, the band seemed destined for runner-up status to American act Metallica, nominated for its breakthrough And Justice for All release. No one from Jethro Tull even attended the Grammys.
“Our record label, Chrysalis, wouldn’t even fly us out because they said we had no chance of winning,” Barre says. “Thanks, guys. But I’m proud of it. I keep it in the studio where everyone can see it. Who cares if it wasn’t in the right category? It means someone appreciates what you’ve done. A precious thing, and having only one, in some ways, makes it even more precious.”
Incredibly, Barre’s intricate solos, chords, lines and harmonies, within the complex structures of Jethro Tull’s music or his own, are the result of self-teaching. He doesn’t even read music.
“I play by ear,” he says. “You pick up a few bad habits that way, but when you take lessons, you can also take on somebody else’s bad habits. I might write down a note to play somewhere in a piece to remind myself, but everything is mostly played from ear training and memory.”
“I always loved Martin Barre’s playing with Jethro Tull,” says Steve Snel, a veteran Coconut Creek-based jazz/fusion and popular music guitarist. “I saw them live several times early on after the band formed, and he always had great guitar tone, and was able to craft very musical parts that literally made the songs.”
Indeed, Barre’s imprint on modern music is etched across Jethro Tull classics like “Aqualung,” “Cross-Eyed Mary,” “Locomotive Breath,” “Thick as a Brick,” and “Minstrel in the Gallery.” The group released a stellar 1978 double-live recording, Bursting Out, that included all of those tracks and beyond. And the progressive rock stalwart’s great shows in South Florida included a 1979 date at the Hollywood Sportatorium, with opening act UK, in which the stage was rigged like a pirate ship for the tour to support Jethro Tull’s Stormwatch album. Reminded of such 1970s highlights, Barre makes a bold promise.
“Our emphasis is always to entertain the audience while also entertaining ourselves,” he says. “And not to blow my own trumpet too much, but I think the shows we’re doing now are on a par with those tours. I really believe that. Last night was exhausting, but so rewarding, and I think things will get even better as we get rested and more attuned to the material and to each other. It’s very exciting.”
See the Martin Barre Band at 8 p.m. on May 3, and 7 p.m. on May 5, at the Arts Garage, 94 N.E. 2nd Ave., Delray Beach ($40-$75, 561-450-6357). Visit artsgarage.org.