Jethro Tull at Hard Rock Live
Thursday, December 13, 2007
They may belong to an elite group of Sixties survivors, but unlike others of that ilk, Jethro Tull have never attained the special stature accorded others of that ilk. Sure, “Aqualung” remains a perennial classic, and the band’s brainy synthesis of styles -- prog-rock, jazz, folk, classical and even parcels of medieval melodies -- bequeaths them a certain sophistication typical of a time when Rock deliberately strayed outside its borders. Nonetheless, where other bands of Sixties vintage and sixtysomething birthdays test the limits of diehard devotion – a fanaticism that allows the Rolling Stones to tip the scales with their concert grosses and motivates 20 million fans to vie for 18,000 tickets to Led Zeppelin’s one-off reunion -- Tull’s journeyman consistency makes them seem rather modest indeed.
Still, Ian Anderson and company have managed to create a reliable cottage industry, built on non-stop touring and the ability to repackage their catalogue through a steady stream of live albums and archival offerings, three of them this year alone – Live at Montreux 2003, The Best of Jethro Tull Acoustic and Ian Anderson Plays the Orchestral Jethro Tull. And if the enthusiastic crowd that greeted them last night at Hard Rock Live -- the next-to-last stop on their 2007 North American jaunt -- was any indication, the market for all things Tull has yet to reach the level of over-saturation.
Just as there’s ample reason why they still garner their populist appeal (admittedly, mostly from aging fans who still retain some first-hand Sixties sentiment of their own), it’s also obvious from catching them in concert why 40 years after their formation in early 1968, Tull remain something of an acquired taste. For one thing, the music tends to obsess on intricacy, craft, tone and texture; with the exception of only a few selections from their current 14-song set – “Living In The Past,” “Nothing Is Easy” and “Locomotive Breath,” the inevitable encore – they don’t trumpet the almighty riff and familiar refrains. It speaks volumes that one of the offerings reaping the loudest reaction was “Bouree,” a song from their second album, Stand Up, that stole its melody from a vintage classical composition by Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s not surprising either that a melody written by England’s King Henry VIII -- a gentleman who ranks as the least likely of pop pundits -- should appear three songs into their set. Or that a signature song like “Aqualung” should be re-imagined with less rock relish and more subtle shadings.
It’s noteworthy too that a firebrand version of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” (from the musical “West Side Story” and based on a fiery adaptation by Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer) was the only new entry of the evening, and that the most recent Tull tune (aside from a riveting instrumental plucked from Martin Barre’s 2003 solo album, Stage Left) was “Budapest,” off a nearly 20-year old album, Crest of A Knave. In fact, there were surprising omissions; with age as a consideration, “Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll, Too Young To Die” would seem all too appropriate at this juncture. So too, these harsh times might demand “War Child.” Likewise, in keeping with the holiday spirit, something from the band’s recent Christmas collection might have been in order.
No wonder as well that in their live setting, Anderson remains the only band member concerned with stage presence, while the rest of the outfit – perennial guitarist Martin Barre, longtime drummer/percussionist Doane Perry and more recent recruits David Goodier on bass and John O’Hara on keyboards and accordion – seem content to focus on their support roles with a studious, heads-down sort of stance. It marks them as “serious” musicians rather than posers, an approach all too appropriate considering Tull’s penchant for lengthy, intricately involved instrumentals and the lack of flash in the stage set-up. Indeed, the players’ somewhat stodgy presence more befitting jazz musicians or classical performers than the reckless abandon of a real rock ‘n’ rollers.
Fortunately, Anderson remains the consummate showman -- in his dandy-like theatrics, overly enunciated singing and the spit and sarcasm that accompany his dutiful intros to nearly every song. “Bouree” was described as “disrespectful, lonesome porno jazz,” while a medley of “Sossity, You’re a Woman” and “Reasons For Waiting” was dedicated to “couples celebrating their third shag of the week.” (“I’m a once every two weeks kind of guy,” Anderson announced.) Still, the intro that got the loudest laugh came courtesy of their age-old chestnut “Fat Man,” newly re-dubbed “I Don’t Want To Be A Clinically Obese Person.” Anderson then detoured from his righteous remarks by announcing they were playing it for “the fat guy in the third row.”
Anderson proved conclusively that he’s the man that makes Tull so terrific. While there’s a common misconception by the unaware that he’s in fact he band’s namesake, there is no doubt that he dominates the band both musically and in personality. He may balance a bit precariously on one leg while in one of his flute frenzies these days, but he’s still as spry and nimble as always as he poses and prances about the stage, making faces, snorting and spitting and generally carrying on as an amiable emcee. There’s reason too why he remains Rock’s most able flautist; his playing is still dazzling in every regard.
Indeed, Tull may be deemed dinosaurs but they still make a mighty rumble. – Lee Zimmerman
Personal bias: I’m a prog-rock devotee. Anyone else agree its way past time for a King Crimson reunion?
Random detail: Guitarist Martin Barre is in desperate need of Rogaine, but he was wise enough to cut his remaining follicles short and rid himself of the Bozo the Clown look he was sporting previously
By the way: Aren’t we goddamn lucky to have such a cool venue like Hard Rock Live where bands of every age and variety can converge so conveniently?