The backdrop on stage is a simple, white cloth emblazoned with a dark flute-playing figure standing on one leg, which harkens back to Ian Anderson’s cult status as frontman—and presently the only original member—of the 40-year-old legendary progressive rock band Jethro Tull.
Anderson has been admonished for imitating sacred Hindu deities who also have been depicted as standing ceremoniously on one leg. In the bird kingdom, a flamingo can stand for up to four hours on one leg in an effort to conserve bodily energies. Perhaps, then, Anderson’s reasons were equally innocent. Regardless, I don’t see a kindred relationship tonight between Anderson and any variety of flamingo. I see Anderson as more of a “cat-man”. He and his wife Shona actually have a section on how to take care of kittens on their website.
Tonight Anderson eyes the audience keenly, and occasionally leaps across the stage, vigilantly aware of the gaze his fellow musicians hold. Wearing a stark black beret, black vest and pants and a white shirt, his persona purrs “tuxedo cat” not “bird”.
Anderson embraces his many incarnations. On this leg of his solo tour, he draws from his Celtic roots, classical passions, jazz and classic rock. Tonight, his counterparts – John O’Hara (piano and accordion), David Goodier (acoustic bass), Florian Opahle (acoustic guitar), Mark Mondesir (drums, percussion) and Meena Bhasin (viola) are all renowned artists aside from their ties with Anderson, but tonight they pull together their distinct skills and talents to create an intimate acoustic- based performance.
Many classic rock fans, in adjoining seats, compare memories of Tull’s greatest performing moments. Politely correcting each other’s song lists, they relish the mention of key Tull luminaries. The Vic Theater is intimate, and I’m seated on the balcony level in good view of the players. And, seated in the balcony, like that literary “Cat on a hot tin roof”; the excitement mounts. Our eyes widen as the band sets up, and we wonder which albums Anderson will draw from tonight.
Goodier, tour member since 2002, is in close proximation to Anderson and keeps his eyes on him as they begin the set. Anderson strums his mandolin with a raw exuberance. His voice trails off into the lyric for “Dun Ringill”. Anderson brings out his long awaited flute next as more eyes widen and our ears bend toward center stage. Though Anderson is known for unleashing the flute on the rock world, his handling of the instrument tonight is more subdued and down to business.
He announces that O’Hara will be using the celeste, or as he calls it, “The almighty celeste”. Drummer Mark Mondesir, a self-taught UK percussionist who has said, “You can’t learn jazz in a classroom,” has played with Ravi Coltrane, Jeff Beck and Art Farmer. His cross stick techniques and creative accents have afforded him secure invitations to world-wide festivals.
Anderson announces that they will play a “Little diddly dee”, and the full acoustic fervor embraces “Jack in the Crème”. 1989’s “Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square” follows and Anderson makes a quip about the many bass players he’s gone through.
“Don’t call him number seven / Call him number two,” he says dryly, giving a nod to Goodier. This track is from Tull’s third album Benefit. Released in 1970, it focused on Celtic folk and classical choices – a departure from Aqua Lung which found Anderson on stage looking the part of the Dickensian Fagin from Oliver Twist and was groundbreaking for its progressive tempo changes, disturbing characters, “Cross-eyed Mary” and “Jack-Knife Barber”, to name a few.
“Bright city woman walking down Leicester Square everyday / Gonna get a piece of my mind / You may fool yourself but you don’t fool me,” Anderson wails in this gutsy work. He chats us up with a story of how in 1974 scientists talked about global cooling and he launches into “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day”.
“Meanwhile back in the year One / When you belonged to no one / You didn’t stand a chance, son, if your parents were undone,” he sings mockingly. The addition of xylophone and bar room accordion are bright touches, though Anderson asserts that this is “The worst song I ever wrote – this is a real stinker,” and he complains about the hippie guitar solo the song inspired once upon a time.
“Back to the Family”, from ’74s War Child bears frequent rhythm changes. Anderson trades improvisatory flute solos with his guitarists. Viola performer Meena Bhasin, who has played with the Israeli Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall and the Queensborough Symphony and with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, and took up strings at age four with Yukako Tarumi, takes to the stage to perform “Tea with the Princess”.
A dramatic performer, her jet-black hair follows the arch of her viola as she sways next to Anderson who states succinctly that Bhasin is “On viola, not violin”. Anderson pulls out his mandolin and they engage in what he dubs “Persian Blues”.
“Fatman”, from Tull’s 1969 album Stand Up and 2003’s “Live At Montreux” encourages more percussive ware. Anderson, a svelte silhouette, cracks some remarks about his own currently slender physique.
“Don’t want to be a fat man / People would say that I was just good fun / I would rather be a thin man / I am so glad to go on being one,” he croons with cocky resilience.
“Rocks on the Road”, from 1991’s Catfish Rising features Anderson’s extraordinary improvisatory flute solo and the long, blonde-haired Bavarian-born Opahle shreds in tandem. Opahle, born in ’83, met up with Anderson in 2003. Anderson dips and stalks the audience and they eat up the blues flourish this song engenders.
“There’s a black cat down on the quayside / Ship’s lights / Green eyes glowing in the dark / Two young cops handing out a beating know how to hurt and leave no marks,” goes this urban observation. Ahh…more cat references? What did I tell ya?
After a brief intermission, the band returns and Anderson flashes, then brandishes a blues harp and sings about the old sun which keeps on shining. Anderson confesses that in 1969 he came to Chicago and inquired about where to hear the blues. He was told simply, “Don’t go to that part of town.”
“Gathering teardrops in the night” is the sweet lyric assigned to Anderson’s song about a child in his garden, ending with the existential line, “And does anybody care”?
The audience has been whispering requests about, of course, old favorites from “Aqua Lung” and fortunately the vibes must have been felt. Anderson plays the intoxicating Dorian-modal based “Mother Goose” which features an accordion solo and an impassioned Flamenco virtuosic heel-click moment with Opahle.
“As I did walk by Hampstead Fair / I came upon Mother Goose / So I turned her loose / She was screaming / And a foreign student said to me was it really true / There are elephants and lions, too, in Piccadilly Circus?” sings Anderson. His voice is lilting and resounds with his distinct off-kilter vibrato. The strumming is dirge-like, ornamented with hammer-ons while Anderson’s voice floats against the choppy instrumental melody line.
He chatters about wandering around London in the summer of ’68 and bobbing heads in the audience gloat. It’s like Anderson owns a part of their youth and this evening he’s giving it back to them one song at a time. Bhasin’s viola streams in and the full effect, though a far cry from the recorded version many of his early audience members treasure, is full and rich. Anderson has been generous this evening with his affection for his band mates.
The haunting throb of Bhasin’s viola meets a hybrid of Celtic and classical Indian persuasion on “Change of Horses”. Anderson collaborated with Anushka Shankar, daughter of sitarist Ravi, and eventually put lyrics to it. (While touring in India, terrorists attacked Mumbai where the Anderson camp was scheduled to perform the next day. The musicians planned a benefit, “A Billion Hands Concert” in December of 2008 for the families and victims affected by the attack).
Bhasin’s riveting melodies grip Anderson’s flute, abrupt meter changes and deliberate call and response between the players fuels the passions. There are glimmers of Django Reinhardt in Opahle’s intense guitar work.
Tonight there is a ghost in the Vic, J.S.Bach, the composer of “Bourrée in E minor”, which Anderson calls “Bourrée”, unknowingly collaborated with Anderson this evening and may or may not have enjoyed the blend of classical and jazz-rock that’s been fused with his contrapuntal creation.
Sighs accompany the beginning bars of “Aqua Lung.” It’s fascinatingly led off with O’Hara’s accordion, then flute against viola and marching drum.
The screaming imagery of the wretched lyrics, “Sitting on a park bench / Eyeing little girls with bad intent” are brought vividly to life by Anderson. The subdued bridge, beginning with the phrase “Sun streaking cold” is thrilling against the sheer viola and droning strings. There’s a deep feeling of satisfaction that seems to glue this group of fans together tonight, but as the band begins to leave, a sense of urgency prevails. The players are coaxed into an encore.
“Locomotive Breath” is captivating. It’s bluesy, though many of us miss the exuberant string deadening riff made famous by Martin Barre and the lugubrious John Evan freight-train inspired piano progression. But, as is typical tonight, even the most faithful fans are encouraged to stretch their post-psychedelia muscles and enjoy these re-imagined versions and O’Hara and Goodier don’t disappoint.
Anderson, like the small members of the cat family he covets, is an endangered species – one of the few to have survived the tempestuous 60s, one of the few who still plays with a band developed more than 40 years ago, and one of the few who has so curiously paved a career that despite band member changes and quirks in the industry, has managed to keep creative control and explore a multiplicity of genres – jazz, classic rock, classical, Celtic, Indian etc.
This audience, however, licked their chops while chomping down this masterpiece. Anderson plays the anticipated melodic line and then infuses it with flavors reminiscent of an Indian curry. Anderson leaves the stage to allow the musicians free reign. He comes back after a torrid solo by the group and prances like the endangered species he dreams of saving. Lurching like a black panther, his voice assumes a frenetic pitch.
“In the thundering madness of locomotive breath”, he snarls. Anderson and his entourage has held this audience at bay for two solid hours – still standing on two legs – and has thoroughly entertained us with brilliant textures and fanciful melodies.
At the end of the evening, a small crowd gathers outside to hopefully grab an autograph or wish him well. The waiting has paid off as Anderson hurries to his getaway car, opens the window and fumbles for a pen as happy fans hand him photos and ticket stubs; his wife Shona at the wheel. Despite his endangered species status this time ‘round, Anderson’s still got a few other lives left to live.