(Editor’s Note: Because of unforeseen internet problems, this review did not make it into print on its originally scheduled publication date earlier this week. But here it is, a few days late, but a thoughtful review of an important performance, nonetheless.)
By Mike Finkelstein
On a gorgeous Saturday night at the Greek Theatre, Ian Anderson gave the loyal Jethro Tull following an entire reading of the legendary Thick As A Brick saga. After 40 years, you may or may not know that there are now two Thick As A Brick albums. Oh yes, Thick As A Brick 2 was released in 2012 to update us on the life of the fictional Gerald Bostock. In this program, both albums were performed back to back in two separate sets.
Jethro Tull has always been the musical vehicle for Ian Anderson’s active imagination. They were quite the representative band for their generation in the late ‘60’s/early ‘70’s, taking chances with their musical direction and actually selling tons of records by making music that resonated on the radio and on the stereo. Thick As A Brick was one of the first concept albums by the flourishing progressive rock band. The entire album was one long, multi-textured, many themed, and yet cohesive song … a song that lasted both sides of an LP. This was risky in its time. But, it worked because the music was catchy and iconic, refining much of the sound Jethro Tull had established on Aqualung. On Thick As A Brick in particular, the band began to riff around instrumentally beneath and between the verses. This approach developed into the very unique style that defines them to this day.
The first Thick As A Brick is a rambling affair that concerns the adventures, thoughts, and dreams of a small town English lad named Gerald Bostock. In the end, the music holds the attention more than the somewhat long-winded story does. Still, the album displays an entertainingly English sense of humor and style.
The original album cover art actually included an entire mock up newspaper (the St. Cleve Chronicle) from the boy’s town, which humorously engaged the listener in small town English culture. Toward that end, on Saturday there were several film vignettes of Anderson walking through his estate and some nearby small towns, narrating the story in his own witty and animatedly recognizable style. Similarly intriguing were the images of the English Boy’s Own magazine to give a feel for the times of Gerald’s boyhood.
On Saturday, Anderson was joined by ace players and current Tull members John Ohara on keyboards and David Goodier on bass, along with Scott Hammond on drums and Florian Ophale on guitar. Also present was actor/singer Ryan O’Donnell who served as Anderson’s shadow/understudy/relief pitcher. At times, we had to wonder why O’Donnell’s presence was needed. Looking a bit like a young Anthony Michael Hall, he struck the same poses as Ian, used the same physical theatrical mannerisms, and even carried a prop flute. When he sang he did sound like a young Ian Anderson, and perhaps that’s the rub. It has been clear for several years now that Anderson must strain noticeably to reach the clear notes of his early work when singing live. So, young O’Donnell did spell him for a few stanzas at a time throughout the show, playing a younger version of himself as Gerald Bostock.
Though it is now more of an effort for Anderson to sing the songs, the music is so well conceived and so tastefully played that it still works onstage. It’s interesting that Anderson plays the whole of Thick As a Brick with a capo on his tiny parlor guitar. A capo will give a guitar a distinct sound but it can tend to drive a singer’s expected range higher. Still, the capo remained right there at the third fret of Anderson’s guitar to maintain the song’s familiar ring Saturday night.
The first half of the show was familiar to many of us who have owned Thick As A Brick on vinyl for years/decades. Listening to the band play through the album you can definitely trace the developing Tull sound. In the second half of the show the band allowed itself off the leash to follow that direction and step out a bit. Musically it delivered because no other band sounds like this.
The musicianship in each song is built on a foundation of several catchy riffs and from there each player gets to coordinate and synch up with every other player throughout the program. Interplay is what gives Tull shows their personality. Having watched the whole of both albums unfurl onstage Saturday night I couldn’t help but be drawn less to the story than to the details of the songs and their high musical level. While it would have been nice to have Martin Barre there on guitar, he didn’t actually play on Thick As A Brick2, and Ophale did. Live, Ophale shined in his own right with a Les Paul run through a Fender Twin amp.
It is a very unique blend of rock, jazz, and English folk music that Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull have concocted over the years. In the end the level of playing will continue to allow Tull to delve into their past at will, on whatever terms Ian Anderson wants.
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