I feel for the editors of this DVD. From the way they keep switching Ian Anderson from colour to black and white, split-screening his head, and superimposing his torso over the orchestra, I’m guessing that the poor things must have been very bored. They were probably sitting there thinking, “We’re bored and the audience is going to be bored. Let’s do something fun.” But lo, their equipment was basic and rather cheap. “We’ll split-screen him again! Three times! That’s fun right there!”
I don’t blame them. Two hours of concert hall footage gets dull after a while no matter how good the musicians are and no matter how much you like the music. The lighting is sometimes too bright, and the flautist’s features get blotted out in the glare as if his performance is being consumed by the onset of a Rapture. We switch from close-ups to longshots and the camera goes up and down in the wings and Anderson stands on one leg but nothing can save it. Play it in the background while you’re doing something else, or turn the TV off and pretend you’re listening to the CD. Turn on the TV again to watch the interviews: 48 minutes with Ian Anderson and seven minutes with Fritz Rau, the man who brought Jethro Tull to Germany after a fruitful conversation with Jimi Hendrix back in 1969. It’s the interviews that make the DVD.
The CD strips away some of Anderson’s stage patter but otherwise it leaves the performance intact. It’s a good performance too. In the DVD interview Anderson looks rueful when he says that he never has a perfect night: there will always be a few notes that sound wrong, every time he plays, but then he points out that he’s probably the only one who can hear them. He’s been reworking these songs for so many years that by now it would be difficult to tell the difference between a slightly misplayed note and an intentional improvisation. He also says that he isn’t a good singer but it’s hard to imagine Jethro Tull being sung by anyone else. You’d always miss that well-enunciated English rasp.
But why the orchestra? Well, why not? Tull’s music is better suited to this kind of interpretation than were the songs of Kiss or The Rolling Stones. The band has always sounded thoughtful; they don’t rawk out on cars and sex and glory. Their songs are not tight four-minute blasts like the Stones’ “Satisfaction”. Instead, they’re exploratory, they noodle around, which means that you can mess with them and still keep the essence of the piece intact. Tull are not strangers to classical music either—witness their popular jazz deconstruction of Bach’s “Bourée”, which gets another workout here. Most importantly, any fan who’s heard live Tull albums in the past has become accustomed to the idea that the songs are malleable. They change whenever they’re played. The Orchestral Jethro Tull isn’t a radical leap, it’s simply Anderson finding more new ways to riff about with their back catalogue.
It works well in the case of “Aqualung”, which is built around a simple melody that turns out to be strong enough to support a seven-minute overture, mostly strings and brass. “See if you recognise this one,” he says, and plays six notes on the flute. The violins quiver. He plays a few more notes. They quiver again. Someone in the audience whistles: they’ve recognised it. “Budapest” works less well. It comes from Crest of a Knave, a 1987 album that sounds as if it was influenced rather too much by ‘80s classic rock. The original song went for 10 minutes, the reworking goes for 14, and both of them could do with shortening. It doesn’t have the same strong backbone as “Aqualung”, and Florian Ophale’s electric guitar is intrusive. “Budapest” is followed by “Locomotive Breath”, which brings the concert to a close, but by the time I got to the end of “Budapest” I was too exhausted to enjoy it.
Both “Aqualung” and “Budapest” are on the second disc of this two-CD set. The first disc has the shorter songs: “Up the Pool”, “Wond’ring Aloud”, “Mother Goose”, “Living in the Past”, and nine others. Ian Anderson, professional that he is, plays as if he hasn’t already dealt with these things hundreds of times before on hundreds of different nights. (Interviewed by Rolling Stone, he estimated that he’d played “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath” 18,000 times. That was in 1993. God knows how often he’s gone through them by now.)
Confronted by classicalised versions of non-classical songs you’re always asking one question: does it sound like a novelty item, like Beethoven played on pennywhistles or hip hop on the tuba? The Orchestral Jethro Tull doesn’t. It sounds like a good addition to an already large body of work, not an essential purchase but one worth listening to. This isn’t the best CD to give to a Tull newcomer, but to the fan who’s got all of the studio albums and is wondering what to buy next—please, be my guest.