The platinum-wigged female string quartet has been conspicuously absent since 1974’s Warchild tour, and the bassist who once sported a matching diagonal black and white striped suit and guitar has long since moved on. The bandleader wore neither his long, ragged coat nor his mutant minstrel get-up, accessorized with a distinctive silver codpiece. There was a guy in a rabbit suit, though, and enough moonstruck madness to convince me that I was seeing Jethro Tull at some earlier point in the band’s flamboyant history.
They were, in my circle, one of the defining bands of the Seventies, and they’re still an internationally popular act. The years haven’t dimmed these rockers’ power, at least in terms of the will, if not the flesh.
They have, in effect, stood their ground for so long that the music world has been forced to grow around them. For some reason, Willie Nelson’s tune “On the Road Again” has been going through my brain lately. Particularly the line where he likens himself and his buddies to a “band of gypsies.” Well, Tull front man Ian Anderson, a similar iconoclast in some respects, is a Chaucerian figure, leading his erstwhile mates on to Canterbury. Jethro Tull has toured perennially for going on 33 years, and their press asserts that they’ve done over 2,500 concerts.
Now in the autumn of their collective career, they’re frankly overqualified for the mono-dimensional tastes catered to by popular music. How can one account for the rousing character and apparently limitless self-perpetuation of this musical unit? For one thing, there was never much question of Tull fitting in with the norm, so they’ve avoided dating themselves. They occupy a fringe of that branch of rock dubiously labeled “progressive;” a term recently saddled with marginal, suspect implications when applied to music or politics. Since Tull has shown itself to be adept at Brit folk rock, blooze and skiffle boogie, hard rock, and classical or jazz idioms—ye gods, you name it—categorization of any kind is basically insupportable.
Singer/songwriter/flautist Anderson is one of only two of the original members. The other is guitarist Martin Barre. But this is no pack of geezers coming out of retirement, backed by a few studio musicians. Keyboardist Andrew Giddings, a band member since the early ‘90s, is indispensable to the overall sound, and also adds his touch of well-rehearsed irreverence to the live show. (To name drop some other ‘70s chart gods for an example to the contrary—The Guess Who—well, they tour with a mere skeleton of the original group. The rhythm section, to be specific. Nothing like reliving your adolescent angst to great old tunes being recreated by a band that are, in essence, their own tribute group!) Tull’s evolution was more organic than mercenary. Its reconstitution has been similar to the biological process of the sloughing off and regeneration of the body’s cells every seven years.
Obviously, a Jethro Tull show is going to include a majority of the songs from the back catalogue; stuff you still hear on Classic Rock radio, or as period window dressing for the occasional movie or TV show. But there’s a healthy dollop of new music, besides. Jethro Tull have suffered no unreasonable gaps in their recording career, so they’ve pretty much always had an excuse to tour. While Tull didn’t necessarily emerge unscathed from the faddish electronica of the ‘80s, an era which purists may well discount entirely, they’ve pulled things together admirably during the last decade. Anderson, in particular, has persevered and prevailed, in recent solo projects, and within the Tull format.
Anyway, this is all leading up to a report from the front; I saw them doing their stuff over the summer. It was at one of those “sheds,” a roofed-over amphitheatre, where yuppies and trust fund kids get the assigned seating under cover, and the rabble and their coolers are strewn over the back lawn. The place was positively bursting with humanity. Finding a perch with clear sightlines would have been next to impossible, but being free to amble about, following the crashing waves of music, shopping for outrageously priced T-shirts, or to take a piss during a drum solo, was pretty cool.
They performed a complete retropective beginning with their second album Stand Up (1968), and moving at random through Dot Com (1999). The old stuff and concert mainstays were done with a twist or two that belied how often these guys must have played them by now. For the initiated, I hardly need to list some of the selections; you can count on hearing an improvisatory version of “Bouree,” the Bach cover tune that probably runs through Anderson’s head on a loop only perceptible when he wakes at 3 a.m. to complete silence within his secluded estate. “Nothing Is Easy,” from the same album, is more of a novelty. The lyrics directly invite listeners, dragged out by adversity and anxiety, to take comfort in the restorative power of the music. This elemental offer of succor hit me very close to home back when I originally heard it.
The evening wended along on its way, in both full-bore rock and acoustic modes. Highlights from latter day works included “Beside Myself,” from Roots to Branches (1995), an autobiographic tale of the well-off Western tourista, helpless to do much but observe the ravages of life in the Third World. Also, “In the Grip of Stronger Stuff,” from Anderson’s Divinities (also 1995), an instrumental for keyboard and flute dedicated to a hard-drinking Tull alumna.
Notably, they excerpted Thick As a Brick (1972). This is an epic, unified song-suite comprised of discrete passages and movements—a blatant parody of concept albums, which also functions as the ultimate concept album. This record blew the roof off, back in the day. I’ve heard countless live versions of it. Yet, I’ve begun to notice an interesting effect: instead of the music stagnating, it seems to recombine a little differently each time. It’s a maddeningly intricate piece, but not only do they seem to excerpt a different segment of it each time out (which I could understand), I think they also know it so well now that they can shuffle its sequence. In other words, it’s become a truly modular composition, and playing it’s a hellacious party trick. I’m probably imagining all this. All the same, considering the difficulty of the piece, we were definitely treated to a grandiose chunk of it. Such hardened professionals as they are, they probably consider this feat no big deal. Anderson, a jocular and ribald MC, teasingly threatened that if we didn’t behave, he’d play “the whole damn thing.”
Anderson’s flute playing is staggeringly skillful. I’ve seen him listed alongside the late Jean-Pierre Rampal recently in the music press. Sadly, though, as Tull aficionados have known for some time, Sir Ian’s public singing voice blew itself out somewhere between the 1000th and 2000th live date. Watching him gamely struggle through some of the material amounts to an exercise in compassion. After all, it’s his sacrifice for the benefit of the fans. And the audiences’ tolerance for imperfection and age is indicative of the boundless goodwill the band engenders. The fact remains that great gobs of people, old and new devotees alike, are willing to pay big bucks for the privilege of returning to see them year after year.
After the guaranteed encore of medley-fied versions of “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath,” and the ritual oversized helium balloons playfully batted out over the dispersing crowd, it was time to bid our old friends adieu. Then, on to the dreaded festival parking lot, where the touchy-feely, communal vibe was abruptly shattered by the horrendous death march of gridlock. This underscored a vintage snippet of Tull lyricism from the *Warchild* album, a philosophical reference to the struggle for existence, “the fight for your life that is everyday.” In a show of civilized restraint, no vehicles were overturned or burned. It was another measure of our loyalty to these great musicians that we were willing to put up with each other’s presence, if just for one night.