Martin Barre knows what it's like to reach the stratosphere of superstardom. He's toured the world, played the biggest arenas and, for more than four decades, recorded dozens of classic albums, all as chief guitarist for Jethro Tull. So it's no small turnaround to find him scaling back in the role of a solo troubadour, narrowing his expectations and playing intimate venues under his own auspices. Although he's had his own band for three years and, by his count, plays an average of 100 gigs a year, Barre's current jaunt marks his first series of solo gigs in the United States.
"It's very difficult to get over there," Barre says, explaining the delay via phone from his home in the United Kingdom. "I'm an unknown quantity. But through word of mouth and through YouTube, I hope and I guess I have a good reputation."
It sounds strange to hear Barre undercut his credence, given the fact that his guitar riffs, like that on the Tull showstopper "Locomotive Breath," make for some of the most indelible encounters in all of rock 'n' roll. Barre concurs but quickly points out that even though he reinterprets several Tull tunes in his solo shows, there's a big difference between his individual efforts and what he did in his former day job.
"Let's just say far fewer people want to see Mick Jagger than want to see the Rolling Stones," he points out. "It's the same thing here. Everyone wants to see Jethro Tull, but when it's not Jethro Tull, promoters become nervous about what they're going to get. However, when people see us play, it breaks the ice. I'm not in my normal environment, but I hope people will trust me."
So can audiences expect to hear that classic riff? Barre demurs. "I don't do it because I think it's the easy way out," he insists. "I don't want to be predictable. I do a lot of cool stuff that I think works really well, a lot of my own stuff, as well as blues standards we've worked up on our own. The Tull stuff I play hasn't been played in a long time — 'Minstrel in the Gallery,' 'To Cry You a Song,' 'Song for Jeffrey,' and 'Fat Man.' I've sort of reinvented them and given them a fresh spin."
Still, he concedes that the high bar set by Jethro Tull adds increased pressure. "There certainly was a lot of that in the '90s when I first started recording solo albums," he says. "I recorded an entire album and rejected it because the benchmark was Jethro Tull, and it didn't reach that plateau. Now, after six or seven albums, I'm more comfortable. The music I'm doing now doesn't compare to Jethro Tull or what Ian [Anderson] is doing, so I don't feel that pressure now. I'm enjoying myself so much, the danger is that I might get a bit self-indulgent."
That's the opposite of how he felt about being in Jethro Tull, particularly in its final few years. "In the beginning, we were unpredictable. We could go from rock to folk to that kind of showy extravagance. But in the end, it got safe and repetitive. It was a good time to stop, although it wasn't of my making... Everyone who played in Jethro Tull came in with so much enthusiasm and energy, but if you're restrained from using that energy and giving it to the band — if you're on a very tight leash — it doesn't work. I want my musicians to have total freedom. It's important that it works on an equal basis."
Of course, the obvious question is, with Barre venturing out on his own and Ian Anderson doing his own reimagining of the band's music, what's the future for Tull? Or is there any at this point?
"It's a safety net to say you never know, but in real terms, I'm very happy with my solo career," he responds. "I'm not looking at money at all. I'd like to play Madison Square Garden and sell it out, but you have to take that out of the equation. I'm talking about the emotion and the music, and I'm in a really good place... My goal is that people will like it, and that will be my reward."
Still, doesn't he miss the money, the fame, the headlining gigs, the cache of being a superstar? "I think looking back can be negative. I don't have time for that," Barre asserts. "So I'm looking forward. I don't go up to people and say, 'Hey, you. Know who I am? You know what I've done?' I'd rather say to people, 'This is what I'm doing now!' I've wiped the slate clean."
The Martin Barre Band
8 p.m. Saturday, November 21 and 7 p.m. Sunday, November 22, at Arts Garage, 94 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach. Tickets cost $45 plus fees. Call 561-450-6357, or visit artsgarage.org.