Fillmore Miami Beach
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Better Than: Jethro Tull? Hmm ... There's reason to consider.
Ian Anderson's decision to revisit Jethro Tull's most elaborate opus (and no, we're not talking Aqualung) certainly took some fans by surprise, if for no other reason that the move seems somewhat belated. After all, the album he's gone back to -- Thick As A Brick -- is now 40 years old, an ancient relic by modern music standards. The fact that he's not only opted to take it out on the road, but to match it with a sequel -- all sans Jethro Tull, no less -- is reason to give longtime fans pause.
Nevertheless, at this stage in Anderson's career, any sudden burst of creative motivation is welcome, especially considering the fact that the Tull brand has been all but retired, soldiering on mainly through reissues and the occasional archival concert recording. So it seems all too fitting that Anderson would take it upon himself to tour -- classic album in hand and new band in tow -- weaving the entire narrative together. In so doing, it becomes not only a credit to his prowess but to his perseverance as well.
There is precedent, of course. Roger Waters's decision to perform his masterpiece, The Wall, as a theatrical extravaganza was certainly a step forward when it came to merging theatrical spectacle and authentic rock 'n' roll. Likewise, The Who's recent retooling of its own classic, Quadrophrenia, takes place this fall. Yet for Anderson, reviving Thick As A Brick would seem the greater challenge, not only because the work dates back much further. But also because he had to create an entirely new work in order to bring it to fruition.
There are other risks involved as well. For one thing, the sequel is largely unfamiliar to Anderson's audiences, and it accounts for the entire second half of the show. For another, the original work functioned as a whole. But when it came to breeding classic songs, it mostly came up short. Likewise, Anderson made it clear in his recent interview with Crossfade that fans ought not expect any other Tull standbys -- no "Aqualung," "Cross-Eyed Mary," "Living in the Past," "Bouree" et. al -- which raises the stakes even higher. And of course, there's no Tull per se, except to emphasize this is "Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson" on the marquee.
Yes, there's a high bar and one could only hope Anderson was up to scaling it.
Fortunately, last night's performance proved there was no need to worry. Reconfigured for the stage, Thick As A Brick remains as impressive as ever, its intricate passages, recurring refrains, pomp, and power all still intact. The fact that Anderson and his excellent backing band -- bassist David Goodier, drummer Scott Hammond, guitarist Florian Opahle -- are able to pull it off so well speaks volumes. Not only about the album's staying power, but also about its ability to still lend itself to live performance.
There are the obvious concessions -- screen projections, occasional videos, some spoken narration, and a central non-musician, Ryan O'Donnell -- who acts as mime, additional vocalist, and general foil to Anderson himself. O'Donnell's presence gives the performance its theatrical emphasis, although the band's posing and posturing suggests its precise choreography regardless.
Nominally, the story still centers on Gerald Bostock, a fictitious boy poet who was credited with writing the original lyrics, although Anderson has conceded that Thick As A Brick was actually conceived as a spoof of the bombastic concept albums that were all the rage back in the late '60s and early '70s. Its sequel, TAAB 2, revisits the young Bostock 40 years later and allegedly follows him into middle age, while commenting on many of the mores that intrude on his -- and our -- existence today. Performed live and bowing to the occasional theatrical trappings, it remains grandly ambitious. But the central story of Bostock seems lost in all its intricacy. Likewise, although the newer album actually bests the original in terms of musical intrigue, the plot still remains muddled while providing only the thinnest thread of continuity.
Nevertheless, Anderson and company do the music justice, weaving their way through the various musical interludes, time changes, and melodic themes with exacting and meticulous execution. Anderson himself remains an ideal front man, a reservoir of nonstop energy, exaggerated expression, and incredible dexterity. At age 65, he attempts to famously balance less on one leg now, but he still manages to mesmerize. And considering that the show clocks in at two and a half hours, intermission included, his staying power is all the more impressive.
It ought to be noted that the concert was also demanding on the audience's attention, given its scarcity of familiar material and the fact that it's largely an instrumental offering. Consequently, a rambunctious encore of "Locomotive Breath," the sole song to break the conceptual mold, proved ample reward for any diehard devotees with sentimental ties to Tull. Yet considering the effort already expended, it almost seemed redundant. Thick As A Brick gave all the weight needed.
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Personal Bias: Being a big Tull fan from back in the day, I felt a bit conflicted. A Tull classic performed sans Tull? Inevitably, the absence of any other charter members proved a moot point.
The Crowd: Mostly those who probably first heard Thick As A Brick when it was originally released.
By the Way: Anderson is as animated as ever. At the age where many people opt for a pension, he shows no signs of slowing down.