Tull’s Anderson not living in the past

Ian Anderson.
Ian Anderson.


Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Royal Hall, Harrogate.

A DAZZLING temple to the past, the Royal Hall is the ideal venue for nostalgia but not everything from the past is as cosy as a pipe and slippers.

The surprising thing about tonight’s sell-out show by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson is how fresh old ambitions appear today.

Is that Captain Beefheart playing on the Royal Hall’s in-house speakers?

Why are a bunch of janitors in brown coats and caps strolling across the stage?

What are they doing sweeping up and messing about with the band’s gear?

Ah - they are the band, it’s all part of the concept.

Although thicker set than days of old, Anderson remains a lively and entertaining performer and master of ceremonies, bounding around the stage in his builder’s jeans, goatee beard and bandana, hop, skipping and, nearly, jumping at times.

He’s hit the road again to perform the original Thick As a Brick album live for the first time in 40 years and, perhaps even more surprisingly, its newly-created, just released sequel Thick as a Brick 2.

The first half is a quite breath-taking display of musicianship as messrs Anderson (flute, vocals, mandolin and more), Florain Ophale (guitar), John O’Hara (keyboards, conductor), David Goodier (bass) and Scott Hammond (drums) tackle the whole of Tull’s epic story of a fictitious eight-year-old boy called Gerald Bostock.

Played live, this spoof concept album, which was taken so seriously at the time it reached number one in the US album charts, is a hyperactiveprog rock melange of different musical styles – rock, folk, jazz and the blues – and amazing quickfire changes in tempo and time.

As if that wasn’t dazzling enough, the ever-mischievous Mr Anderson throws in a host of theatrical touches – spoken narration, audience participation and, most audaciously, a simulated Skype call to violinist Anna Phoebe who adds musical accompaniment part of the time on the big screen behind the band.

Anderson’s trademark psychedelic flute playing is much in evidence - that baroque but subtly psychedelic ribbon of melody - and he shows he’s still lithe enough to pull off his famous playing-on-one-leg trick which used to annoy quite a few people in the days when Jethro Tull were a household name and even hit the pop charts with songs like Living in the Past.

But the self-made country squire spares his voice the burden of carrying the whole show, allowing fresh-faced Ryan O’Donnell to play his younger self as if TAAB was a modern West End musical.

Rather than hindering this helps, adding an extra freshness to proceedings and suggesting Anderson was actually ahead of his time all those years ago.

How the early punks could think ‘prog rock’ was dull with Tull around is hard to understand, though a small part of me starts hankering for the rough-hewn charms of the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant by the time the interval arrives.

Almost as if Anderson had read my mind, what he and this accomplishe set of musicians (though the bass player is clearly a recent recruit) deliver after the break is less musically complex than its esteemed ancestor.

Unlike TAAB 1 whose meaning seemed hard to fathom, a semi-serious tapestry of ideas about the modern world as confusing as the jumble of headlines on the album’s fake newspaper sleeve, TAAB2 is much more clear-cut.

For a start, rather than one nameless track spread across 45 minutes, it has 13 separate tracks with proper names making easily understandable points in more linear musical styles.

This updating of the original story from 1972 to the current day, showing young Bostock’s evolution towards a career as a banker may lack the original’s showy whirlwind of creativity but the great man is still making some timely points about the way we live nowi.

That continuing relevance is powerful testimony to the enduring artistic powers of Mr Anderson, the would-be minstrel and hankerer after Scottish soil who hasn’t been left behind by the march of time afterall, an ancient visionary as lively at the age of 65 as he’s ever been.

As I make my way out of the Royal Hall, a magnificent setting for a magnificent night, the thought strikes me that the most significant aspect about the unfairly-maligned early 1970s wasn’t the fashion excesses and long hair, it was the fact that musicians like Anderson could push artistic barriers and still sell millions of records.

Graham Chalmers