Like The Dude, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson Abides

Jethro Tull

Few Jethro Tull fans could resist the prospect of a new DVD with more than six hours of live footage. It’s debatable how many fans would be overjoyed to learn that over half of this footage is taken from performances filmed after 1990.

Here’s the thing: Jethro Tull, led all along by front man and flautist Ian Anderson, has never stopped touring. In an era when many super groups from the good old days reunite every so often for the let’s come out of retirement to make a few million bucks boondoggles, Tull has quietly persevered. That Anderson has the wherewithal, not to mention the interest, to continue playing the same songs year after year, is a testament to his commitment. That fans continue to come out and see him is sufficient testament of his staying power. Anderson, like The Dude, abides.

Here’s the other thing: Jethro Tull has put out very little music in the last two decades, so their tours are very much musical revues of the glory years. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the main thing that cannot be ignored is that Anderson’s singing voice is gone with the wind — and has been for some time.

All of which is to say, if you fancy almost four hours of similar set-lists performed by a band that is never less than competent, this set may appeal. Understand that it’s seldom pleasant and, in fact, often rather painful to see Anderson wheeze and strain singing songs he recorded four decades ago. It would not be unreasonable for hardcore fans to wonder how much material from the heyday resides in the vaults. If the answer is not much, then kudos to Anderson & Co. for making the most of the readily available, more recent footage.

The first of these four discs is the definite highlight, and not just from a nostalgic perspective. Kicking off the proceedings with a one-two punch (“My Sunday Feeling” and “My God”) from the 1970 Isle of Wight show (already available on the Nothing Is Easy: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 DVD, released in 2004), we see what a fetching spectacle Tull was back in the day. In full Mad Dog Fagin mode, Anderson looks less like a rock star and more like a homeless person having a seizure, leaping and whirling, waving his flute like a baton. It’s good stuff.

We flash forward to 1976 to a gig in Tampa, Florida, featuring what might have been the band’s most versatile, consistently impressive line-up (including mainstay and unsung hero Martin Barre on lead guitar, John Evan and John Glascock on keyboards and bass, and Barriemore Barlow, far and away the best drummer Anderson ever employed). Anderson’s obligatory flute solo (sounding much like the one captured for the subsequent Bursting Out live set from 1978) is a frenetic tour de force, and the spirited take on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony illuminates how ballsy, and brilliant, these musicians were. It’s also somewhat dispiriting to conjecture about how many fans in today’s crowd would recognize that bit of the old Ludwig Van.

From there it’s already 1980, and the gig from Germany represents a swan song. of sorts. To be fair, and accurate, Tull continued to make remarkable music throughout this decade, but it never got this good again. For hardcore fans, this may offer the best bits, with previously unavailable versions of deeper cuts like “Orion”, “Dark Ages” and “Aqualung”. Okay, just kidding about “Aqualung”, but be prepared to see and hear that song too many times to count.

Again, to be fair and accurate fans expect to hear “Aqualung” at every show and Anderson never disappoints. The songs are interspersed with segments from an interview, and it’s always refreshing to hear Anderson, ever articulate and sardonic, appraising his career thus far. It’s remarkable, too, that Anderson was already easing into his “old salmon farmer” phase, with pipe in hand and mandolin in lap; considering that compared to today, he was still a mere lad.

Curiously, if revealingly, disc 2 opens with selections from 1982 and 1986, but there are a total of three songs chosen. From there we get a full set from Chile, in 1996, and the cuts from Roots to Branches and the all-instrumental Divinities (both from 1995) are more suited to Anderson’s, and the band’s, strengths. It’s on the old favorites that the aforementioned pain sets in: by this point Anderson’s once-impeccable singing voice has deserted him. He strains at each line with a pinched-arse head bob that must be as difficult for him to perform as it is to behold. And the viewer can be forgiven for thinking: boy is this going to be a long haul; we have 2.5 DVDs and almost two decades to go.

Here’s yet another thing: Anderson’s acumen illustrates that he’s not living in the past. He keeps plugging away and forward momentum, by definition, if not default, is the opposite of retreat. Yet, the shows have become increasingly predictable to the point of being embarrassingly scripted. That, combined with the dearth of new material, results in several hours of a not-quite-good-enough thing.

Two respites from the monotony can be found: the 1999 Holland “unplugged” session, filmed in a studio setting, and another interview. The 1999 footage, informal and relaxed, is a significant improvement, in part because Anderson does not have to struggle nearly as much in a close, closed environment. The band is tight and quite comfortable with each other (this iteration, including Andy Giddings on keyboards, Jonathan Noyce on bass and Doane Perry on drums, represents the most stable line-up in the outfit’s history, sticking together for an entire decade); the chemistry and comradery does not feel forced and, on the old classic “Fat Man”, they truly appear to be having fun.

The final interview, also from 1999, is a treat for fans. As always, Anderson is self-effacing with a dry, disarming wit. There is no question he has long been one of the more intelligent figures in rock music, and his refusal to take the music, or himself, too seriously, remains commendable. Pressed to list some highlights from his career, he fondly recalls the band’s first big breakthrough at the 1968 Sunbury Jazz and Blues Festival. He also marvels that the band had the opportunity to open for Led Zeppelin in 1969, just as both bands were poised to conquer America.

What we get, with Jethro Tull Around the World Live, is visual and sonic documentation of a legend aging (mostly with grace) before our eyes. We see him go from lean and hirsute freak to balding, dignified gentleman. Whether or not Jethro Tull’s performances have become a prospect of diminishing returns in terms of new material and live repertoire is rather beside the point. People are still gleefully paying to see them perform and Ian Anderson has always made a point of giving the fans what they came for. “We keep playing music because we enjoy it,” he says in 1980. “It’s that simple.” Indeed, it is.

RATING 6 / 10