By Mike Finkelstein
On Saturday night Jethro Tull played to a wildly enthusiastic, predominantly grey haired tribe of devotees on the 40th anniversary of the release of their iconic album Aqualung. The show was delayed about fifteen minutes to allow the huge crowd to reach their seats in time for the start of the show. Tull played two approximately hour long sets that allowed them to showcase in several ways the unique musical identity they have established over a career that still thrives after 42 years. The first set concentrated on their prettier, lighter material and the second rocked harder. However, the band’s forte has always been the ability to weave songs together using many different styles and textures. Having established a song’s identity they usually proceed to improvise the arrangements, to an audience’s often amazed delight.
As the sun sank behind the Santa Monica Mountains, the band walked onstage and the crowd recognized and warmly received their old friend, front man Ian Anderson. Wearing a smart little parlor guitar, capoed as usual at the third fret, Anderson struck the familiar jangling pattern to “Thick as a Brick” and we were all charmed. The song is one entire LP’s worth of music in its original glory. But in Saturday’s abridged form it was still one of their most representative songs, featuring Anderson’s stylistic chording and clever rhyming lyrics, playing off Martin Barre’s disciplined yet ultra- sophisticated electric guitar lines. Beneath these two lines there was an ongoing dialogue with keyboardist John O’Hara establishing a 3-way interaction of melody instruments. The song ebbed and flowed dynamically and it got the audience into just the right groove for the rest of the program.
If ever a rock band brought the minstrel spirit of the English countryside to life for a large audience it would be Jethro Tull. Standouts from the first set included (but were not limited to ) “Mother Goose,” “Up to Me,” and “Wondering Aloud,” all from Aqualung.
“Mother Goose,” is a classic bit of whimsically funny Tull about simply walking around Hampstead Fair and encountering a colorful bunch of characters. While maintaining the elegant acoustic guitar intro and structure of the song, the band vigorously reworked the arrangement, giving Martin Barre room to play with the melody and build his new part into something special. Barre, in fact, simply shined all night long. Next to Anderson in the band for more than 40 years, well into his 60’s, and a long distance runner, he is in great shape, with a lot of pep in his step and plays sizzling hot electric guitar. But his approach is not one dimensionally hot. He changed styles, tones, and speeds tastefully on a dime Saturday night. That ability to alternate between big ideas on the fly was a huge part of the appeal to the band’s sound.
As a band, the interplay and progressive edge that Jethro Tull brings to the table is remarkable. No one else sounds like them. They have always masterfully put the pop polish onto strong songs that combine the best elements of blues, jazz, folk and rock music. With a flute as the lead instrument and their own angle on the music, few bands have even tried to copy them and, given their popularity and longevity, this is impressive.
That they restructure entire songs while retaining all of the hooks and signature moments is rare. But Jethro Tull juggles the spotlight from moment to moment allowing everyone in the band time to shine and then pass the baton to the next man before things can ever approach being uninteresting. Moreover, although they did improvise and solo quite a bit, the sound always remained focused for a pop sensibility.
All the members of Tull are versatile players who project a light vibe on stage. With Anderson’s Vaudevillian showmanship leading the way, they play some very some very intricate syncopated melodic lines. It all came across very relaxed and very well focused. Anderson rotated mid-song all night between guitar and flute, John O’Hara between accordion and keyboards, Martin Barre between electric guitar and mandolin, and even drummer Doane Perry between a full-size trap kit he played with sticks and a scaled down kit at the foot of the stage which he played with his hands during the first set of lighter songs.
The most unique and defining part of the Jethro Tull sound has always been Anderson’s flute. He plays it quite uniquely, favoring trills and flourishes but also singing, grunting and snorting through it as well. Those of us who had not seen the band in quite a while were aware that certain high notes demanded that Anderson physically lunge his neck to enable his voice to reach or vault over them. Regardless, he did this valiantly and the songs continued to sound strong and uniquely like Jethro Tull.
When it was released Aqualung was branded a concept album because it contained songs like “My God,” “Hymn 43,” and “Wind Up” that railed against organized religion. Although Anderson has always maintained it was nothing more that a collection of songs – and he should certainly know — the album has endured as the band’s most iconic work. Photographs that Anderson’s wife showed him of street people inspired songs like “Aqualung” (a wildly memorable bum) and “Cross Eyed Mary” ( an odd looking hooker). Some of the songs, like the beautiful and haunting “Wondering Aloud,” were just love songs. Anderson has also said that the band was quite unhappy with the sound in the studio during the recording of the record. Still, it became their biggest legacy. Which goes to show — one never knows.
Saturday’s second set opened with “Aqualung,” and went on to include the three aforementioned angry songs, all with heavy riffs set against gorgeous rolling chord changes. Fists pumped in the air, grown men and women danced and howled, and the past was happily revisited for the audience. Also present in the second set was “Bouree,” an enduring, jazzy reworking of a J.S. Bach piece. This number featured Anderson’s flute and later in the song bassist David Goodier had a tasty solo spot, where he finger-picked the chord scales of the song. The way the band has adapted “Bouree” over the years is still impressive. From Barre’s busy chording, to the walking jazzy bass line, and light snare work the effect is one of truly modernizing a very old piece of music.
Including “Budapest” in the set served to drive home the point that the band can effortlessly change musical gears several times within one song. Martin Barre again went back and forth from a roaring Gibson Les Paul tonality to Mark Knopfler-esque Fender slinkiness (he was playing neither brand, just a PRS) with the rap of a snare drum. Closing with a rocking version of “Cross Eyed Mary” Tull finished the night with a short segue into the memorable riff from “The Teacher.”
This show really delivered the goods to the audience. For about two hours they could delightfully live in the past, hear all the songs on an ace album they all owned, and have it reaffirmed that a great and extraordinary rock band can go right on sustaining those qualities far down the road.
To read other reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.