From the beginning, Ian Anderson was Jethro Tull. The legendary singer, songwriter, flautist and acoustic guitar player was the driving force behind the group from its earliest days in the late 1960s—so much so that fans confused the name of the man with the name of the group on many occasions. When Anderson dropped the Tull name and began touring under his own in 2012, it appeared that Jethro was going to go the way of the seed-drill that his 18th-Century namesake had invented and disappear forever. But Tull is back in a big way, albeit in fictional form.
Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera is the latest concept from the agile mind of the 68-year-old Anderson, whose voice may be a bit strained at this stage but whose creativity has flagged not a whit. Never one to be satisfied with simply presenting night after night of songs from his “Best Of” repertoire, Anderson dug deep for this show to create a multimedia presentation that is mind-boggling in its scope, complexity and quality. In the show, Anderson and his current lineup of fellow musicians tell the story of the “Tull Family Tree,” beginning with agriculturalist J.T. Senior and continuing down through the ages to include J.T Junior, his son Jasper, and comely Susannah. Anderson chose Tull songs that fit the storyline of this newly imagined family-history narrative, altered some of their lyrics, and added several new songs, as well. Those songs trace the Tulls from old man Jethro’s era to modern day, when his progeny have become genetic food scientists who have earned widespread acclaim for their laboratory inventions.
It’s a deep idea. And a highly commendable one. What other rock musician could take the stage name his band had been assigned by a producer decades earlier and find a way to relate it not only to his own songs, but to thoughtful social statements about life on Planet Earth circa 2015? What other rock musician could conceive of such a thing, much less weave the story together and find such a captivating way to perform it?
The show itself is undoubtedly Anderson’s most complex bit of stagecraft ever. This is in large part due to the video (and audio) presentations that accompany each song. In addition to the amazing graphics shown on a large video screen behind the band—treatments created by Anderson’s son, James—there are other on-screen actor/singers who accompany Anderson to tell the tale of Tull. The band’s bassist David Goodier plays J.T. Senior and sings on several songs, as does Ryan O’Donnell in the role of the younger Tull lads. O’Donnell’s performance on “Wind Up” is particularly powerful. Then there’s Unnur Birna Bjornsdottir, whose vocal contributions are among the nicest surprises and true highlights of the show. These performers, whose segments were taped, come in right on cue every time, acting, singing solo and/or accompanying Anderson. The complexity of this from a technical standpoint can’t be overstated. Kudos are due to Anderson’s production crew—and to drummer Scott Hammond and the other band members—for seeing to it that these virtual vocalists are perfectly in synch with the live music being performed. It’s an impressive feat, as impressive as the stunning graphics that accompany each song—twisting double helixes, characters in costume shot against green-screen backgrounds that permit them to jump between settings, animated characters and typography, and much more. More thought was given to the video elements in a single song from this show than you are likely to see in an entire concert from another band. It’s all highly impressive and shows that James Anderson has certainly inherited a good bit of his father’s imagination and creativity.
Tull’s music has always drawn upon its English folk roots, and those songs created the sound bed for this Tull family story. The show opens with “Heavy Horses,” a rural ode to the plow horse whose job was taken away by the tractor. Other songs, like “Jack-in-the-Green,” “Songs from the Wood,” “Weathercock,” and “Farm on the Freeway” fit right into this operatic discussion of the impact of progress on farm living and the pre-industrial, agricultural way of life. The show includes a good smattering of other Tull hits, as well. Before the show is 20 minutes old, fans are treated to rousing versions of “Wind Up” and “Aqualung,” both of which drew standing applause at the Boston show that I attended. There are several songs from Tull’s Stand Up and Benefit albums, including “Back to the Family,” “With You There to Help Me,” and “Living in the Past.” The performance of “With You There to Help Me” was the best song of the evening in my view—with Anderson demonstrating once again why his innovative flute playing has long been one of the keys to Tull’s unique sound and power. “Cheap Day Return” is a short song I’d never heard Anderson perform, but it was beautifully played in this show. Fan-favorite “Locomotive Breath,” in an extended form that allowed the band members to show off their impressive talents, closed the second set of the show, followed by an encore consisting of “Requiem” and “Fugue.”
But it’s the new songs that fans of Anderson and Jethro Tull should be most excited about. “The Fruits of Frankenfield,” which focuses its message on the perils of genetically modified foods, is a right good rocker of a tune whose minor notes and blistering pacing are wonderfully haunting. Another new song, “And the World Feeds Me,” which Anderson sings in duet with Bjornsdottir, is an achingly beautiful song that you’ll leave the venue humming to yourself.
It’s ironic that ever since Anderson dropped the Jethro Tull name, he has been a one-man tour de force of creativity. His recent albums, Thick as a Brick II and Homo Erraticus both featured inspired new songs that are more musically complex and interesting than anything he’d recorded in a long time. Jethro Tull – The Rock Opera and its new songs pick up right where these albums left off, and one can only hope that these new songs are independently released soon.
If this show is coming to a venue near you, I strongly encourage you to attend it and revel in the mastery of music and other media that Anderson & Co. demonstrate throughout these two one-hour sets. If you can’t, at least search YouTube and see if you can find a video of the show.
“Jethro Tull” may never headline another show as a band, but Ian Anderson has done that old moniker and its namesake proud with this multimedia masterpiece. It is by far the best rock show I’ve seen in all of 2015.